PerspectivesA.G. Gancarski Jacksonville Today Contributor
A screenshot from a Tom Leek ad

OPINION | Why is Tom Leek all over your TV when you probably can’t vote for him?

Published on June 30, 2024 at 9:40 pm
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When Republicans drew new legislative maps in 2022, they were intended to ensure certain outcomes, protecting establishment players while marginalizing Democrats.

The gambit has been largely successful.

But it hasn’t been without its flaws.

One of the most glaring, in terms of political strategy, has been what’s been happening to state Rep. Tom Leek, the Ormond Beach insider seeking a promotion to Senate District 7, where St. Johns County’s Travis Hutson is finally term-limited this year.

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Leek has been one of the most powerful people in the Legislature, coming off a stint chairing the Appropriations Committee and the Joint Legislative Budget Commission. If your local legislator got a project into the budget Ron DeSantis signed last month, you can thank him. 

Power in the Capitol may have scored him the endorsements of DeSantis, the congressmen in the area, and every county sheriff. And it has helped him raise more than $7 million to his two political committees, Friends of Tom Leek and the enigmatically titled Living Life With Purpose. While he’s burning money on the daily, at this writing he has more than $2 million in soft money, in addition to roughly a quarter million dollars in his campaign account.

But all of Leek’s establishment momentum and big spending haven’t helped him in what is now a three-way primary battle with two St. Johns County Republicans with interesting political resumes.

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So people in the Jacksonville market, which includes St. Johns and Flagler counties, are seeing a lot of Leek on television.

How’s it going?

The primary is still weeks away, but Leek is clearly feeling the weight of attacks from the Truth Matters political committee, which paint him as a political insider who has gotten rich as an insurance executive while Florida homeowners have paid increasingly exorbitant rates for flimsy policies from unproven providers, and as someone who backed Ron DeSantis over Donald Trump during the governor’s brief presidential campaign. 

While the spots look like Tim Baker’s handiwork, and while some very plugged-in local Republicans accuse Baker of putting them together, the longtime local political consultant said that the person he uses to make spots is helping consultant James Blair on it, and that he’s not involved.

To be clear, there is truth to Leek getting rich. His first Form 6 financial disclosure, filed in 2017 when he was in the House, showed him worth only $852,000. His most recent filing from June shows him much healthier, now worth $16,234,296.

Not bad for government work!

Leek is on air now with a spot attempting to explain away the “fake news” attacks in his own voice, which is something rare for Republican primary candidates who don’t have much name recognition, and a sign that the hits from Truth Matters are leaving marks.

The candidate claims that he fought frivolous lawsuits against insurance companies and that as a result “personal injury lawyers” are “trying to take (him) down,” which is arguably true – the king of the industry, billboard barrister John Morgan, certainly has no use for him.

But for voters in the district, how relevant is a spitting match between an insider Republican and a group of aggrieved attorneys?

That’s the open question.

Leek is having to introduce himself to voters on the defensive, seemingly defined before they really plugged into the race. And that’s a problem for him.

The candidate is lucky in one sense.

While St. Johns County GOP registrants hold a plurality in the district, numbering nearly 120,000 of the roughly 215,000 Republicans eligible to vote next month, former Sheriff David Shoar and repeat candidate Gerry James, both from the county, look likely to split that vote. 

Leek should theoretically be strong in his home county of Volusia, which has roughly 27,000 GOP registrants, and will have to play hard in Flagler and Putnam, which have roughly 68,000 voters between them.

A plurality will win in August, of course. And Leek has financial advantages over his opponents and the committee that opposes him

At this writing, Truth Matters has less than $300,000 on hand. Shoar has reported nearly $42,000 in fundraising, suggesting he will need more committee cash to make a mark against Leek. And James, who got nearly 44% of the vote on a shoestring budget against the well-heeled insider Hutson two years ago, has roughly $65,000 on hand – a number bolstered by a $50,000 personal loan.

Voters have been known to reject the best funded candidates in races before; ask “President” Jeb Bush about that. And James has already scored the endorsement of the St. Johns Republican Party.

It’s unknown to this writer if that happens this time – no one has floated even an internal poll yet.

But what is known: Leek is going to have to work for this nomination. And Jacksonville TV viewers are set to see his face all summer long as a result. 

Regardless of how the primary shakes out, the district won’t elect Democrat George Hill, who is on the November ballot already. He has less than $30,000 on hand. And Republicans have more than a two-to-one registration advantage over the opposition party. 

August is the real election, in short.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor email A.G. Gancarski has been the Northeast Florida correspondent for Florida Politics since 2014. He writes for the New York Post and National Review also, with previous work in the American Conservative and Washington Times and a 15+ year run as a columnist in Folio Weekly.

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