Race Analysis: Florida Senate District 22

Dennis "Mitch" Maley
Florida Senate District 22 is mainly in Sarasota County. However, it covers a sizable chunk of southeastern Manatee, roughly from SR 70 to University Boulevard. Incumbent Joe Gruters faces an atypical challenge from a far-right activist who lives halfway across the state. Because an effort to use the write-in loophole failed on a technicality, it will be an open primary in which both Republicans and Democrats will decide the seat.

Gruters looked poised to cruise into reelection unchallenged until Seminole County Republican Michael Johnson qualified for the ballot. Johnson, a member of the far-right activist group Grassroots for America, seems to be motivated by a ruling Gruters made as Chair of the Republican Party of Florida, concerning a local beef within the Seminole County REC that seemed to boil down to who was and wasn't loyal enough to Trump and DeSantis. You can read more about that here

It is unlikely that Johnson has any chance of winning the primary, though some Republicans worried that Dems who do not like Gruters could support him in a protest vote. However, the fact that the seat is solidly red enough for Gruters not to have drawn a Democratic opponent in the general makes that seem highly unlikely.

The irony here is that Gruters went about as far in for Trump as an elected official possibly could, so much so that he was named co-chair of the former president’s 2016 Florida campaign. Like many modern Republicans, it’s hard to get a sense of whether that was because he truly bought into Trump’s platform, or because he’s an opportunist who made a bet that staying loyal to Trump under all circumstances would pay off politically. Now, that unwavering loyalty has stoked fears that Democratic voters will seek to punish him by electing Johnson.

Again, that wouldn’t solve much from a pragmatic perspective, as there seems to be no doubt that Johnson’s love of Trump goes far beyond opportunism to that of a true believer. Additionally, when he’s not engaging in culture war nonsense that divides the community, such as his failed effort to make school board races partisan, Gruters occasionally takes the lead on an issue that is beneficial to his local community, such as the ability to pass smoking bans on local beaches that passed in the most recent legislative session.

In the end, there is no question that Gruters would be better for the district than Johnson, who lives across the state and likely knows little to nothing about the constituents he’d be representing. That said, I have little sympathy for the plight of Gruters or any other Republican who has taken the poison pill of culture-war politics in order to coopt the support of Trump’s loyalists should they falter when voters, especially Democrats, cannot tell the real wingnuts from those who are just pretending.

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here.