St. Augustine | Noah Hertz, Jacksonville Today

These St. Johns County elections will likely be decided in August

Published on July 9, 2024 at 7:14 pm

Single-party domination in local politics means key St. Johns County elections are likely to be decided in the August primaries.

In the races for three County Commission seats and sheriff, write-ins and unaffiliated candidates have closed the primaries to Republicans only. St. Johns Elections Supervisor Vicky Oakes explains the write-ins and unaffiliated candidates will go straight to the November general ballot, and the county’s Republicans will vote in August who will run against them — practically guaranteeing they will choose who represents everyone. 

Jacksonville Today thanks our sponsors. Become one.

“We’ve never had a write-in candidate win any races,” Oakes tells Jacksonville Today.

Three candidates are vying for sheriff: incumbent Rob Hardwick, Jim Priester and write-in candidate Terri Schurman. That means general election voters will choose between the primary winner and writing in a name — Schurman’s or otherwise. So while not technically decided in the August, the race may as well be.

And the race for St. Johns clerk of the court will be officially decided in the primary because the only two candidates are both Republicans, which opens the election to voters of all parties under Florida’s closed primary rules.

Article continues below

Jacksonville Today thanks our sponsors. Become one.

In St. Johns County, 54% of registered voters are Republicans, 21% are Democrats, and 23% are either not affiliated with a political party or registered with a minor party.

But Republican groups in the county are far from being in lock step about who should be elected in any of the races.

The St. Johns County Republican Executive Committee is sending a message to County Commission incumbents by endorsing their less well-known and less well-funded opponents.

Incumbent Christian Whitehurst was elected to the commission in 2020, Roy Alaimo was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022 after the death of Commissioner Paul Waldron, and Henry Dean has served two terms following his election in 2016. 

Three incumbent St. Johns County Commissioners are endorsed by the county’s Trump Club and opposed by the Republican Party Executive Committee. | Noah Hertz, Jacksonville Today

Republican Executive Committee Chair (and clerk of courts candidate) Denver Cook says people feel like they aren’t being heard by many of the current slate of elected officials.

“People all want to live here for a reason. But how long is that going to last if we continue to do the same thing, business as usual?” Cook tells Jacksonville Today. “We need to be flexible. We need to be nimble. We need to look at things more comprehensively, and people need to be heard.”

It’s his committee’s role to identify the candidates who best represent the core tenants of the Republican Party, Cook says. Those include “fiscal conservatism, right for life, gun rights, individual rights (and) constitutional rights.” In St. Johns today, he sees rampant development, a ballooning budget and out-of-control taxes. 

The committee is endorsing Ann-Marie Evans over Whitehurst, Clay Murphy over Alaimo and Ann Taylor over Henry Dean. 

In terms of fundraising, the REC-endorsed candidate who’s closest to his opponent is Murphy, with less than half of Alaimo’s $244,000. As of the end of June, Whitehurst had $200,000, while Evans had 10% of that.

Still, Cook hopes an endorsement from the local REC — and its help with campaign activities like door knocking and sign waving — will outweigh advantages in name recognition and fundraising.

Political discourse

On the other hand, the St. Johns County Trump Club is endorsing all three County Commission incumbents, as well as School Board candidate Lynn Staughan over REC pick Linda Thomson and incumbent Clerk of the Circuit Court Brandon Patty, who’s running against Cook. 

Diane Scherff founded the Trump Club in 2017 in part because she had become disillusioned with the local REC and wanted to endorse candidates who better aligned with the then-president.

Whereas Cook says current commissioners aren’t representing conservative values, Scherff says blanket opposition to new development isn’t either. 

“Conservatives don’t believe in not allowing someone to sell their property and getting it developed,” Scherff says. 

Scherff also accuses Cook of supporting liberal candidates who have “infiltrated” the local Republican Party. 

Cook has also been criticized by his committee’s own Vice Chair Jamie Parham, who alleges the St. Johns REC violated the Republican Party of Florida’s rules by issuing endorsements at all.  (A message left with the Republican Party of Florida seeking comment was not returned by this story’s publication.)

Addressing the infighting, Cook says, “For me as chair, I’m trying to reduce anger and increase activism towards the party platform — to create positive outcomes for our community and these eight candidates…They’re not out for vengeance to put people in jail to destroy the county, to call everyone corrupt and crooks. They’re out there trying to change the way we’re doing business.”

There is one thing all local conservatives agree on, he says: “In November, we are 1,000% behind Donald Trump as our nominee, and we need to get him elected.”

If you’re not a Republican?

For the roughly 45% of St. Johns County voters who aren’t Republicans, the ballot in August will look a lot slimmer. 

Democrats are running to represent St. Johns in the state Legislature, but not a single one will appear on the ballot for county and local races. 

County Commission candidate Ann Taylor is urging Democrats to participate in her race in August by changing their voter registration.

“It is so, so important that people realize that if you want to vote and have a voice in our local elections, you need to get the Republican ballot,” Taylor said during a virtual candidate meet-and-greet hosted by community activist Dawn Hutchins in May.

But Robin Dion, former chair of the St. Johns County Democratic Party and a delegate to the Democratic National Convention, disagrees.

“I think it’s a very bad idea,” she says. “This game of trying to decide which is the least bad Republican is just that — it’s a game that has never really panned out for us.”

Even though that means not getting to choose the sheriff or county commissioners, Dion says plenty of important issues should drive Democrats to the polls for the primary, like two nonpartisan School Board races.

“County commission is not everything,” Dion says. “And county commission has its own problems as well in terms of the property developers basically being in charge of everything. So it’s very difficult to move the needle in that area. But there are lots of other areas where we can make a difference.”

Voter turnout in primary elections has historically been poor in the county. Supervisor of Elections Oaks says the numbers are disappointing.

“It bothers me that in St. Johns County, we have not had any primary elections since 2004 that has been in excess of 31% voter turnout when, to me, it is our right, our responsibility, to be engaged in our communities and our processes, to elect our local officials,” she says.

Before the elections

The Florida primary elections are Tuesday, Aug. 20, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Early voting in St. Johns County for the primary runs from Aug. 10-17. 

The deadline to register to vote or change party affiliation in time for the primary is July 22. Both can be done on the Supervisor of Elections’ website.

Two St. Johns County candidate meet-and-greets will be hosted by the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce this month: 

  • 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, July 23, at Beachside High School, 200 Great Barracuda Way
  • 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 31, at Solomon Calhoun Community Center, 1300 Duval St. in St. Augustine.

And check back on Jacksonville Today in early August for candidate comparison tools in all local and state races.

author image Reporter email Noah Hertz is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on St. Johns County. From Central Florida, Noah got his start as an intern at WFSU, Tallahassee’s public radio station, and as a reporter at The Wakulla News. He went on to work for three years as a general assignment reporter and editor for The West Volusia Beacon in his hometown, DeLand.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.