As the big blue bus pulled into North Port St. Joe, locals couldn’t help but stop and stare. It looked particularly large on the narrow streets, where the bus driver had to be tactful about making turns to avoid hitting trees or running over people’s lawns.
But the goal was not to remain unnoticed. Plastered with bright blue lettering reading “Florida Freedom Tour,” the bus was made to be seen.
In it, Florida Senator Loranne Ausley (D — Tallahassee) and other senate Democrats have been making the rounds in Ausley’s north Florida district, including Gulf County — part of a statewide bus tour organized by the Senate Democrats to boost the campaigns of five candidates.
Along for the tour, which will include stops in each of District 3’s 13 counties, were state senator Jason Pizzo (D — Miami Beach) and Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D — Plantation).
“I’m the state senator for a district that spans 13 counties, and Gulf County is the farthest to the West,” said Ausley while observing the site of a former baseball field in Port St. Joe. “I get out here a lot, but my colleagues don’t get out here. I have two senators here from South Florida who want to see my district, and I am so excited to be able to show (it to) them from one end to the other.”
“… We’re coming up on the election. I’m running for reelection, so we’re here to let people know who I am.”
On Wednesday, Ausley made two stops in Gulf County — going door to door in North Port St. Joe to speak with constituents and learn about community organizations, then visiting the oyster leases at Indian Lagoon.
“Here in Gulf County, I get to show (my colleagues) both the land and the water,” said Ausley.
The tour will focus on trying to advance Democratic Senate candidates in races that are expected to be tight, including Ausley’s.
Senate Republicans are one seat shy of a supermajority — giving them two thirds of the state senate’s voting power, the proportion required to pass constitutional amendments.
“We would not be on a 10-day bus tour if we thought we were going to be winning all of these races by double-digit margins, not the case at all,” Pizzo told reporters at the News Service of Florida. “In fact, I don’t think Leader Book would disagree with me if I said we think Loranne’s race is going to be within a few hundred votes. We think it’s going to be very tight.”
Republicans are also digging deep in North Florida.
In support of Corey Simon, Ausley’s Republican competitor for the seat, the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee launched an ad Wednesday to coincide with the bus tour, which they dubbed the “B.S. Express” in a graphic circulating on Twitter.
The ad, called “Don’t Be Fooled,” portrays Ausley as an “extreme” Democratic candidate — challenging her claims of bipartisanship.
Ausley is the incumbent for District 3, which includes Gulf County, but her district was redrawn and expanded this spring as part of the once-a-decade reapportionment process.
Both candidates for District 3 are well-known in the area, but for very different reasons.
Ausley, an attorney, served two terms in the Florida House prior to narrowly defeating Republican challenger Marva Preston for her State Senate seat in 2020.
Simon was a defensive standout for FSU’s football team in the 1990s and went on to spend eight years in the NFL.
DeSantis tapped Simon in 2020 to lead Volunteer Florida, a position he stepped down from when he launched his Senate campaign in June.
Ausley and Simon’s campaigns both express focus on issues the candidates say are greatly impacting rural communities.
For Simon, this includes tackling rising inflation and housing prices and restructuring the educational system to better support students entering vocational fields.
“Our system funnels students… into four year degrees,” he said in a campaign ad earlier this month. “It’s time we invest in vocational education for our community, our economy and our kids.”
Ausley stated her platform focused on bringing bipartisan attention to issues she hears about in District 3’s rural counties.
“I’m criss-crossing the district, and I hear people are struggling. People are worried about how to afford the rising price of property insurance, housing, child care, you name it,” she said in front of the Farmacy, an organization focusing on food distribution in Port St. Joe and surrounding areas.
“We’ve had leadership that has wanted to focus on divisive issues, and they’ll really tear us apart. I feel like I’ve been able to get things done in the Senate and in my public service career by bringing people together, and the things that bring us together are things like this Framacy that we’re in front of right now, bringing a community together around food.”
After about 40 minutes of campaigning, Ausley, Book and Pizzo packed up operations quickly in North Port St. Joe — attempting to stick to a strict schedule of appearances that will last through the next several days.
The next day, October 27, the tour had plans to make stops in Franklin, Wakulla, Madison and Jefferson Counties. Early voting in Gulf County begins on October 29, and Election Day is November 8.