Early bettors, Figlesthaler channels Trump, an Eagle in the crosshairs–SWFL’s State of Play Today

04-14-20 Petition signing 2018A student signs a Florida ballot petition in pre-Coronavirus days of social intimacy, pens and paper. Petitions can now be submitted by e-mail.      (Photo: author)

April 15, 2020 by David Silverberg.

In pre-Coronavirus days, April 15 held the special significance of being tax filing day. This year, that deadline has been postponed. What has not been postponed, however, is the deadline for congressional candidates to file their quarterly campaign fundraising reports—and that day is today.

Once filed and posted on the Federal Election Commission (FEC) website, voters (and journalists) will get as real a look at the state of campaigns as it is possible to get, backed up by the force of law.

Last week, two candidates in the 19th Congressional District of Florida jumped the gun and issued press releases on their own fundraising prowess. State Rep. Byron Donalds (R-80-Immokalee) claimed he had raised $335,000 from 3,000 donors. Newcomer businessman Casey Askar claimed that he had raised $500,000 in just 11 days of campaigning.

Without the official FEC reports, it’s impossible for the public to verify these figures or see just how much of these fundraising totals are loans from the candidates to their own campaigns. For example, Republican William Figlesthaler’s campaign raised $536,295 in the last quarter of 2019, the highest amount of any District 19 candidate, but $410,000 of that came in a loan from the candidate himself.

Nonetheless, claiming the kinds of totals that Donalds and Askar announced last week helps keep their campaign publicity alive and has the potential to scare other candidates out of the game, like placing a big bet at a hand of poker.

On the air

The money raised by Askar and Donalds is clearly not scaring off Figlesthaler, who is the only candidate currently buying broadcast advertising time, although it’s questionable whether this is a wise move in April. It does put him ahead of the other candidates in raising his public profile at a time when no one can campaign in person but it’s debatable whether this springtime ad buy amidst the Coronavirus crisis will reach the Republicans who will be voting in August.

That said, from a policy perspective, Figlesthaler’s campaign remains very thin on substance.

Figlesthaler’s most recent video ad, “Make our economy great again,” airing on area stations, states that the Coronavirus pandemic “has left our economy in shambles—but Dr. Fig knows how to turn things around.” It then touts his past business prowess and record and vows that “in Congress, Dr. Fig will put that business expertise to use and help President Trump to make our economy great again.”

What the ad does not do is offer any specifics on how he’s going to do this but then again, that’s never the case with a 30-second spot. However, there are also no economic remedies offered on his website or Facebook page.

So on Monday, April 13, The Paradise Progressive reached out to Figlesthaler by e-mail to ask precisely what measures he would take as a member of Congress to aid Southwest Florida’s economy.

As of this posting no response had been received.

We’re not holding our breath—and neither should you.

Channeling Trump in an ‘epic dog fight’

With a dozen candidates in the 19th Congressional District race, nine of them Republicans, the contest among the nine Republicans was always going to be an “epic dog fight” as Republican candidate and Fox News pundit Ford O’Connell put it—before dropping out of the race himself.

Inspired by President Donald Trump himself, personal nastiness has indeed entered the 19th Congressional District Republican contest, although it is somewhat reduced by O’Connell’s departure.

Nonetheless, Figlesthaler proudly claims to “channel Trump” by calling Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson “shady.” As he declared in a Feb. 12 tweet: “Shady Mayor Randy @HendersonForFL is getting stomped so hard, even his own party is turning on him. Like most big liberal run towns, Fort Myers has gone to the dogs under Randy. The racial divide and crime under his leadership are disgusting.”

This was not Figlesthaler’s first Twitter insult. On Dec. 16 he called Florida House Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77-Cape Coral) “sick.”

Eagle in the crosshairs

Figlesthaler’s insult has some history behind it. He was attacking Eagle for the latter’s receptivity to measures to halt gun violence while serving in the Florida House of Representatives.

It’s to be remembered that after the Feb. 14, 2018 Parkland, Florida high school shooting, the Florida legislature, where Eagle served as House majority leader, passed historic gun restrictions. The legislation raised the minimum age to purchase any firearm to 21 from 18; imposed a three-day waiting period on gun purchases; funded school police officers and mental health counselors; and allowed local school districts and sheriffs to arm some school personnel. It also banned bump stocks and gave law enforcement officers the authority to seek to seize weapons from people deemed unstable or dangerous.

Gun access advocates have never forgotten the heresy.

“Interesting that @DaneEagle sends tweets promoting the second amendment, but when @Mike2020 [Michael Bloomberg] and the anti-gun lobby come knocking, he is all ears. If Dane sold out our gun rights at the state level, imagine what he will do in DC. Sick,” tweeted Figlesthaler in December.

But while tweets may sting, money hurts.

There is only one SuperPAC active in the 19th Congressional District, according to the 2019 FEC filings—and it’s aimed squarely at Dane Eagle. (A Super Political Action Committee (PAC) is one that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on issues but not on individual candidate campaigns.)

That SuperPAC is called Drain the DC Swamp PAC and it is dedicated to Trumpism in all its incarnations.

“We support President Trump’s vision of a government of, by, and for the people,” states the PAC’s mission statement. “From protecting life to protecting our borders, we support those who fight for traditional values, our Constitution, and our Country.”

So how could Eagle, a staunch Trumper and fervent conservative, run afoul of a similarly oriented organization?

04-14-20 Dane Eagle betrayalA screen shot from Drain the DC Swamp PAC’s anti-Eagle video.

“Dane Eagle sold out Florida gun owners,” snarls one of the PAC’s video ads that was posted in December, shortly after Eagle announced his candidacy.

“Make sure Dane Eagle does not go to Congress. Florida’s 19th District needs a strong Constitutional Conservative – not Dane Eagle.” The ad accuses Eagle of buckling to Michael Bloomberg and betraying gun owners. It makes it seem as though Eagle alone was responsible for the gun legislation passed by the Florida Senate, House of Representatives and then-Gov. Rick Scott.

Words are one thing but the PAC put its money where its mouth was in the fourth quarter of 2019, spending $9,200 in digital and social media advertising to oppose him.

It’s interesting that Figlesthaler’s campaign theme is “drain the swamp” and so is the name of the PAC in question. But there’s no indication of the PAC doing anything in particular that favors Figlesthaler, aside from attacking his opponent.

It will also be interesting to see what, if anything, the PAC spent in the first quarter of 2020.

On or off the ballot

All this activity will be moot for many candidates if they don’t submit the petition signatures or pay the $10,044 ballot fee to the state’s Division of Elections.

Despite numerous complaints and appeals from candidates of both parties to delay, waive or reduce the deadline because of the Coronavirus emergency, the Division of Elections has remained mum. The original deadline was March 23 to submit the signatures. The Florida Department of State subsequently relaxed the requirement that petitions be on paper and signed in ink. It now allows e-mail submissions.

However, as of this writing, there is no evidence of any change in deadlines or fees.

Unless there is that change, the currently crowded District 19 race could be winnowed considerably before the August 18 primary.

Accommodating Coronavirus

There’s no doubt that the post-Coronavirus political world is a different place. Candidates have no choice but to move their campaign and fundraising operations online. Cindy Banyai and David Holden, the Democratic candidates, have held and keep holding tele-town halls and online meet-and-greets. Social media is becoming the main medium of the 2020 campaign—at least until the all-clear is sounded.

The next major milestone in the 19th District contest will come when the first quarter 2020 FEC reports are revealed. The fundraising totals those show and any decisions by the Florida Division of Elections will determine the shape of this year’s Southwest Florida political landscape.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

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