Florida Democrat targeted by DeSantis struggles to stay in Congress

“I am Al Lawson. I need your help,” he repeated all day. But Belgard was not offering one because she was critical of Democrats and President Joe Biden. Lawson countered that he funneled millions of federal dollars to the area and made a vow, “I won’t give you up for nothing.”

“If you became a Republican, I would vote for you all day long,” Belgard retorted.

That exchange summed up Lawson’s core problem: He’s a lifelong Democrat whose congressional district — a near-majority black district — was dismantled by DeSantis this spring. The governor’s redistricting plan not only eliminated Lawson’s seat, but also placed the entire state capitol and Lawson’s home in Tallahassee, in the district now held by the GOP representative. Neal Dun, originally from Panama City. It was a move designed to give Florida Republicans a 20-8 seat advantage over Democrats.

Several voting and civil rights groups have filed legal challenges against DeSantis’ redistricting efforts in state and federal courts, but none are expected to be resolved anytime soon.

Instead of retreating or ending his political career, the 74-year-old Lawson blasted DeSantis’ involvement in the redistricting and announced he would challenge Dunn even if the revamped district opted for the former President Donald Trump vs. Biden by 11 points in 2020.

“I always had it in my blood,” says Lawson, who noted that he represented many rural counties in the newly formed congressional district during his 10-year career in the state Senate.

Lawson, whose Republican colleagues in the Florida legislature joked with him about his endless quests for money for a rural fire department, staked part of his campaign on a call back that underscored how many d state and federal money he’s gotten for residents over the years.

Despite pleas from fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, National Democrats provided little funding for his campaign. He said he told his DC colleagues, “I want to know if I’m really a member of the [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.] You gave me nothing.

“You could give me $25,000 and that would be fine,” Lawson said in an interview.

In the rare member matchup, Dunn edged Lawson more than two-to-one. Campaign documents show Dunn raised nearly $1.59 million, compared to the nearly $600,000 Lawson raised.

Just a few years ago, North Florida was home to conservative Democratic voters who split their tickets between Republicans for president and hometown Democrats. But Trump’s rise has led to a “major realignment” of the region, said Democratic analyst and data consultant Matt Isbell. Calhoun County, the Blountstown home where Lawson campaigned, had twice as many Democrats as Republicans in 2016. Not anymore. Calhoun and several other counties in the area now have more GOP voters.

“The window is closing quickly,” Isbell said. “When I started tracking local party affiliation – this whole area – was blue. Now there are hardly any left. … We are quickly reaching the point in North Florida where the only Democratic neighborhoods outside of Tallahassee are African American.

Lawson’s 5th congressional district connected black communities in northern Florida, from western Tallahassee to the city of Jacksonville more than 160 miles to the east. It also included a large swath of Tallahassee and would have remained a Democratic-friendly seat in some of the initial maps drawn by lawmakers. But that all changed when DeSantis pushed the GOP-led Legislature to blow it up.

It is against this backdrop that Dunn and Lawson — who have known each other for decades — are now vying for the same seat, the only congressional race between incumbents and incumbents in Florida. The contest took on a tougher and more partisan turn as Election Day approached, with both men airing ads cutting their opponent.

Dunn, who showed up at the Goat Day festival about half an hour after Lawson left, stressed he had nothing to do with the DeSantis card that put him in competition with Lawson.

“I don’t show up saying he’s a villain, I show up saying I’m better suited for the district,” Dunn, who was first elected in 2016, said in an interview.

The two men displayed these differences during a debate Tuesday noon in Tallahassee in front of a local political club. Dunn and Lawson disagreed on abortion rights, guns, Biden’s presidency and the economy. Dunn called Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan “grossly unconstitutional” while Lawson said it was “the right thing to do” to help students after Congress bailed out Wall Street.

Dunn, using a line familiar to Republicans across the country, said Lawson “votes with this president 100% of the time” when he represents “steadfast conservative values.”

“I’m not worried about [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi or Biden. What worries me is cutting resources so that our community can survive,” retorted Lawson.

Dunn’s line about Lawson’s voting record also appears in one of the Republican’s TV ads linking Lawson to Biden and Pelosi. Lawson, meanwhile, hit out at Dunn for voting against a sweeping expansion of health care for veterans that GOP Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott voted yes.

Dunn, a surgeon who spent 11 years in the US military and rose to the rank of major, bristled at criticism and defended his no during the debate, calling the bill “reckless” and too expensive.

“There’s no way I’m voting against veterans,” said Dunn, who wore a black U.S. Army baseball cap while campaigning in Blountstown.

Nancy Texeira, a longtime Lawson adviser who works for a super PAC that helps her, says bluntly that “we don’t expect cross-voters” to support Lawson. Instead, the group plans to target independents, students in Tallahassee and black voters in Leon and Gadsden counties. Part of their message: DeSantis took their voice away by pushing through the redistricting plan that swept through the current Lawson District.

“It was done so cruelly and it didn’t get enough press,” Texeira said.

But Texeira acknowledged that the same partisanship influencing voters across the country is now in place in North Florida.

“There was a time when partying didn’t matter,” Texeira said. “Party is like a religion now.”

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