TALLAHASSEE — The stakes are high in a North Florida contest between a scion of a prominent Democratic political family and a former football star who is a “huge fan” of Gov. Ron DeSantis, in one of the races the most watched in the State Senate this year.
Incumbent Sen. Loranne Ausley, a Democrat from Tallahassee, is trying to take on the challenge of Republican Corey Simon, a political newcomer who rose to prominence playing football for Florida State University before turning pro.
Both candidates are a known quantity in the district that includes Leon County and the surrounding rural area of Big Bend, but for very different reasons.
Ausley, a lawyer, served two stints at the Florida House, before being elected to the Senate in 2020. Her lineage includes former state lawmakers and prominent Tallahassee lawyers.
Simon was a defensive star on the FSU football team in the 1990s and then spent eight years in the NFL.
DeSantis tapped Simon in 2020 to lead Volunteer Florida. Simon resigned from his post when he launched his Senate campaign in June.
Both Ausley and Simon present themselves as focused on issues that impact the rural communities that surround the state capital.
“Being in the district talking to people about the issues they face in their own communities, in their own homes, is not something I do just in an election year,” Ausley said in a written response to questions. from The Florida Press Service. “It’s the foundation of what I think public service is. When I’m in the district, I listen to my constituents and talk about the progress we’ve been able to make and the resources we’ve been able to secure for Big Bend.
Ausley noted securing more than $1 billion in funding for the Senate District for fire trucks and stations, schools, hospitals, courthouses, water projects and parks.
Holder also noted that following the decade-long redistricting process, the rural scope of the North Florida District expanded to include Dixie, Lafayette, and Suwannee counties.
“Every budget-constrained county struggles with a weaker tax base that makes it difficult to meet basic infrastructure needs such as law enforcement, roads, health care and broadband, which explains exactly why state and federal funding is so important,” Ausley said.
Simon said he focused on “kitchen table issues” that impact families.
“Really, it’s inflation, it’s the price of gas, it’s the price of real estate, it’s the price of rent, it’s the price of food,” said Simon during a telephone interview. “It’s about making sure they’re represented to try to alleviate some of the pressures that have been put on them by the out-of-control spending. People are really suffering there.
Discussing his leadership role at Volunteer Florida and his relationship with Desantis, Simon said the governor is looking for someone “with some empathy but also business experience” to help build volunteerism in the state. He also outlined some of the DeSantis policies he supports.
“I’m a huge advocate and fan of what the Governor has done with parental rights and ensuring parents make the best decisions for their children, and I support him on that. I’m a big fan of what he offers in terms of professional and technical training,” said Simon.
Simon said he comes from a “normal person background” – his grandfather had a sixth grade education and his mother worked for Publix supermarkets for 35 years – and he wants to send a message that politics is for everyone.
Ausley fended off Republican opponent Marva Preston in an unexpectedly competitive race for the Democratic-leaning district two years ago.
But Ausley supporters say Simon’s name recognition in Senate District 3 should not be underestimated.
JM “Mac” Stipanovich, a former Republican political operative and lobbyist who is now an independent, said that while he supports Ausley, she faces a stronger and better-funded opponent in the upcoming election.
“The Ausleys have been a public service factor here in this community for decades, and they have served with distinction. And I think she’ll do just fine,” Stipanovich told the News Service. “Simon’s only claim to fame is that he played football at FSU. It’s not something to deny or ignore in a political race around here. I just don’t know how it will work out in the end. account in what is pretty much a heavily Democratic district.”
Stipanovich argued that Republicans rely on people in the district to vote “for their football allegiance rather than their public policy preferences.”
Republicans, meanwhile, see a tantalizing opportunity to flip the district and boost their already lopsided majority in the Senate.
Leon County Republican Party Chairman Evan Power touted Simon’s presence in the community beyond his football days.
“Corey is well known in our community. He was obviously a football hero at Florida State. He then ran the Pop Warner (youth soccer) program here locally. The governor trusted him to run Volunteer Florida for the state, and now he’s a candidate. So we think we have a great candidate and a great opportunity to turn a district from blue to red,” Power said in an interview.
DeSantis gave Simon a high-profile endorsement over the summer.
While many GOP candidates who have received the governor’s blessing have prominently featured the endorsements in campaign materials, Simon’s direct mail and TV ads do not. Instead, they are adorned in FSU’s garnet and gold colors and portray him as a candidate who was not “born into power or privilege” – a picture of Ausley’s background.
Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, predicted that voters would not be swayed by the GOP’s efforts.
“I believe … people in this neighborhood are going to see through the facade that is Corey Simon, put up there by the Republicans, (and vote) for someone who is there. In fact, in the community, from the community, doing work as part of the fabric of the community,” Book, D-Plantation, told the News Service.
She added that helping Ausley and Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa — two incumbents facing Republican challengers in newly redrawn districts — score victories is “extraordinarily important” to Senate Democrats.
“We can’t and won’t lose those seats because it’s too important,” Book said.