Political Gridiron: Florida primary matchups and their college football counterparts

by | Aug 13, 2022

 

With college football season set for kickoff just four days after Florida’s political primary season ends, what better way to whet everyone’s appetite for football and politics than a little old-fashioned speculation about which college football programs most closely resemble Florida political candidates? That doesn’t mean we’re making football or political predictions. We’re just picking the football teams and matchups with the most similarities to each candidate.

A stretch? Perhaps. But it’s a fun exercise and a little something different from the typical political fare being served up on the daily. Plus, you might learn a little factoid or two you didn’t know before.

We know many of you have your own alma maters, favorites, fandoms, rivalries, and opinions, so if we got the matchups entirely wrong, well, our bad. Feel free to let us know in the comments. Now, enjoy our take on the 2022 political gridiron matchups.


GOVERNOR

Charlie Crist – Alabama Crimson Tide: No, we didn’t make this comparison because ‘Bama’s mascot is an elephant. That’s just an amusing bonus. We picked Alabama as Crist’s football equivalent because both lost their last big games, and it’s a long way back from the top. Crist, and Alabama, both know it. Crist has been extremely successful in the world of politics — even serving as Florida Governor from 2007 to 2011 – like his football equivalent, he now has to make the climb back up if he hopes to regain the throne.

Without question, Crist has the name recognition to coast to victory in the Aug. 23 Democratic primary. Like the Crimson Tide, he’s ranked a lot higher than his “in-conference” opponent (more on that in a minute). He also has a lot more resources at his disposal. And he’s recruited a long list of star players supporting his campaign, (U.S House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, state Sens. Shevrin JonesJason Pizzo, state Reps. Anna Eskimani, Carlos Guillermo Smith, to name few).

Crist has won the big game before. But, like the Crimson Tide, he also has his fair share of detractors. He may be the clear favorite to win the primary, but like Head Coach Nick Saban, many are wondering if he’s too long in the tooth for the modern day Democratic Party. Is he out-of-touch with the progressive movement? Dare we ask: do Florida Democrats need “Something New?”

 

Nikki Fried – Texas A&M Aggies: Yeah, yeah, she’s the Ag Commissioner and they’re the “Aggies.” It was just a coincidence, we promise. The real reason we picked Texas A&M as the match for Fried is the fact that, like the current Aggie’s head coach, Jimbo Fisher, Nikki Fried is…different.

Theatrics aplenty, both have built their reputations punching up. Whether the crosshairs are on DeSantis or Crist, Fried has made it a point, like Jimbo Fisher, to go after her biggest rivals. Using the political pulpit to lambast Crist’s history as a Republican governor — à la Fisher taking shots at Nick Saban’s character — the Aug. 23 matchup has been circled on everyone’s calendar (much like the Bama vs. A&M game on October 8).

While Fried certainly has the resume — she’s currently the only statewide elected Democrat – some say she lacks the “it” factor that all great candidates – and college programs – have. Call it poise. Call it grit. Whatever it is, Fried may be missing an intangible necessary to push her into the upper echelon. And even if she does come out on top in the Democratic primary, she’ll be met with the Sisyphean Task of facing the “Top Dawg” in the general election, a contest that won’t be easy to win.

Gov. Ron DeSantis – Georgia Bulldogs: Having already won the Florida GOP primary for governor, DeSantis is already in the championship game, waiting on the final ballot to be set.

Yes, we know Alabama is ranked number 1 and Georgia is ranked 3rd in the preseason. But to quote the famous professional wrestler Ric Flair, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man!” On Jan. 10 of this year, the Bulldogs did just that, knocking off the Crimson Tide to capture their first title in over 40 years. The win over Tuscaloosa’s dynasty — which won five championships in the 10 years prior — reverberated across the college football landscape, signaling to football analysts and fans that there’s a new sheriff in town.

DeSantis took hold over the political arena in similar fashion. Crowned king of the political hill when elected in 2018, he’s slowly built a brand over the past four years that every GOP up-and-comer wants to emulate. Like Georgia’s head coach, Kirby Smart, DeSantis established himself as an elite recruiter, molding the Florida Legislature to his liking while executing an offensive game plan that has his opponents tucking tail and licking wounds in the doghouse. The DeSantis / Georgia playbook is simple: “Here’s the play I’m running, try and stop me.”

From how he handles media malfeasance, right down to how he calls an audible to dissect reporters during a press conference, DeSantis embodies the “Sic ’em” war cry that the red and black chorus performs “between the hedges.”

Ironically, DeSantis’s real life alma mater, Yale, has the same mascot as Georgia. He’s a bulldog through and through, and he’s marked his territory as the next big thing on the political gridiron. Like the defending national champions, DeSantis has the bite to back up the bark, and he’s gonna be tough to beat when the championship is on the line.


FLORIDA CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT 11 – REPUBLICAN PRIMARY

One of the most solidly Republican congressional districts in the state, the winner of the GOP primary in FL-11 is almost guaranteed a seat in Congress. FiveThirtyEight.com says the Republican nominee has a 99 percent shot at winning in November.

Dan Webster (R) – Notre Dame Fighting Irish: As the current incumbent, Webster bears a lot of similarities to the Blue and Gold, and almost as much history. Webster first entered politics in 1980, when he won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, a position he held for 18 years, capping his career there with a two year stint as Speaker of the Florida House. Next, he spent another 10 years in the Florida Senate, before ultimately winning his seat in Congress in 2010.

The Fighting Irish have a similar, storied history, with 11 national titles and long list of big game wins, many of them played out in front of a national television audience. Despite Notre Dame’s national following, history and pageantry, though, the program hasn’t won a national title game since the Lou Holtz era, way back in 1988, and hasn’t finished higher than 5th place in the final AP poll in more a decade.

Like the Irish, Webster can’t rely on past accomplishments to win games this year. Despite his strong track record, the political ground appears to have shifted under Webster’s feet and the game itself has changed. What used to be considered “conservative” just isn’t good enough in the modern era. To win, Webster’s going to have to convince voters that they can trust his steady hand and that his rival isn’t ready for prime time.

Laura Loomer (R) – USC Trojans: With all the swagger of the LA-based football team playing just a few miles from the famous Hollywood landmark, Loomer knows a thing or two about playing in the spotlight. The conservative internet star has proven that her viral videos and social media sensationalism are worth their weight in fundraising gold, giving her a cash advantage over her rival, Webster, and sending a wake-up call to the incumbent that he’s got a serious fight on his hands.

Like the USC Trojans, which are slight 2.5 point favorites to defeat their rival Notre Dame this season, Loomer not only has a shot at unseating Webster, she could end up putting a serious thumping on the incumbent once the dust settles on primary day. But to do so, she’s got to prove that her ground game can match her aerial attacks – because Webster’s not going to let her win anything without a fight.


FLORIDA CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT 15 – REPUBLICAN PRIMARY

The closest thing in the political world to the perennially competitive Big 10 is one of the most hotly contested primaries in the nation, Florida’s 15th Congressional District, where a handful of GOP stars are duking it out for the right to represent northeast Tampa, the western half of Lakeland, and everywhere in between. The Cook Political Report lists CD-15 as “likely Republican,” but we’ll take a look Democrats, too.

The Big Ten is home to several storied football juggernauts like Ohio State and Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, all of which are capable of racking up big wins, pulling off upsets, and putting together a resume that nets them a playoff birth and potential shot at a national title. Here’s our comparison of the candidates and the football teams they most closely resemble:

Laurel Lee (R) – Ohio State Buckeyes: Like the preseason favorite Buckeyes, Lee has shown she’s capable of putting together an impressive campaign – particularly in the fundraising department – where she holds an advantage over her opponents. But in a multiway contest against other Republicans with strong track records, anything can happen after the kickoff.

The Buckeyes are heavily favored to win the Big 10 this year and coast into the playoffs, but they also have a target on their back – not unlike Lee, at whom every opponent will be coming like the season is on the line – because it is. Lee’s got money, experience, and plenty of political allies, giving her few excuses for a poor showing come August 23rd.

Kelli Stargel (R) – Michigan Wolverines: If anyone can knock off Laurel Lee, it’s Kelli Stargel. Like the storied Michigan Wolverines and their 11 national titles, Stargel has a long history of conservative accomplishments from her years of work in the Florida legislature. Her pro-life record alone has helped her attract a strong base of activists and admirers who have bolstered her campaign over the summer.

The question for Stargel is similar to the question facing the Michigan Wolverines almost every Thanksgiving weekend: do they have what it takes to execute the game plan and pull off an upset? In a crowded field in primaries around the country, the best funded candidates often come up short. Stargel knows that and could navigate a path to victory in the Republican primary.

Jackie Toledo (R) – Michigan State Spartans: In any given season, the Michigan State Spartans are a highly ranked contender with the capability to knock off rival powerhouses and insert themselves in the College Football Playoffs. Jackie Toledo has a similar shot in Congressional District 15, where the free-for-all, wild nature of a wide-open primary means she might be able to catch an opponent who didn’t come ready to play.

Like the Spartans, Toledo has a history of accomplishment. She’s been a conservative fighter in the Florida legislature and the fact that she possesses a degree in Civil Engineering means she’s got the brainpower to put together a solid game plan to spoil someone’s party on November 23rd. In fact, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com website currently has Toledo listed as their “best guess” as to who wins the GOP primary. So when the dust settles, no one should be surprised if she puts up enough points to come out on top.

Demetrius Grimes (R) – Penn State Nittany Lions: Another contender, Grimes is neck and neck with everyone else in CD-15 in terms of fundraising. His strategy seems to be a laser-like focus on national security issues, in sharp contrast with other top contenders who have emphasized – and in some cases, embraced – the so-called “culture war” issues. That’s not to say Grimes doesn’t support those issues, too. But a cursory look at his website and messaging shows a heavy emphasis on national and international issues.

Still, as with all the other candidates, he’s got the resume, he’s got the cash, and he’s in the game. All that matters is what the scoreboard says once all the votes are counted on November 23rd.


FLORIDA CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT 15 – DEMOCRAT PRIMARY

Alan Cohn (D) – Wisconsin Badgers: No stranger to the big game, both Alan Cohn and the Badgers have been there before. Cohn was previously nominated in 2020 by District 15 Democrats to represent them in Congress, but came up 11 points short against Republican Scott Franklin last time around.

Cohn’s background as an investigative journalist translates well into the political arena, and his previous experience will give him a solid understanding of what went wrong the last time out. But the district is probably just too heavily Republican for Cohn to make enough inroads to come out on top.

Either way, with a huge cash advantage over his Democrat primary opponents, Cohn should coast to the nomination, and like the winner of the Big 10 West, he’ll face the winner of the Republican scrum coming out of the Big 10 East.


FLORIDA SENATE DISTRICT 35

Lauren Book – Clemson Tigers:  Judging from the endorsements she’s garnered, Lauren Book is the crown jewel of the Florida Democratic Party, in much the way the Clemson Tigers are the bellwether of South Carolina’s football fortunes.

The Tigers have tasted championship glory and they’ve got a storied football program. Similarly, Book herself has a great story and a track record as a winner who knows how to get stuff done in Tallahassee. Look no further than Book’s work as Senate Minority Leader and how she managed to coalesce support around her candidacy when she was challenged by a local, well known rival.

Coincidentally, Book was elected to the Florida Senate in 2016, the same year the Tigers captured their second national championship. She also won a second term in 2018, another year Clemson hoisted the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy.

Book has the financial and political firepower to overwhelm her opponent in the race for SD-35. But after being on top for so long, both Clemson and Book find themselves in unfamiliar territory — with the Tigers needing to quickly retool to tip-toe through a sneaky schedule, and Book having to go on the offensive for the first time now that she’s facing her first challenge from a Democrat after shifting districts.

Barbara Sharief – South Carolina Gamecocks: The well-known Sharief has a built-in local fanbase after having served as Broward County’s first African American female mayor, but she’s still got an uphill battle against the equally well-known Book. Both are Democrats to the core and both know how to play the ground game. The advantage in this case is that Book is an incumbent who wields a lot of statewide fundraising power, while Sharief is forced to rely more on her local networks and ground game.

The similarity to the University of South Carolina’s in-state rivalry with Clemson is just too good to pass up. South Carolina’s Gamecocks have always played second fiddle to Clemson, but always have a shot to play spoiler. Sharief is capable of putting up some points, but it’s going to take another big upset to knock off Book.


BONUS MATCH UP: UNITED STATES SENATE

Obviously, this one’s a general election contest, but the parallels between the two candidates and their respective schools were too good to pass up – especially since they match up well with their actual alma maters.

Marco Rubio – Florida Gators: The incumbent U.S. Senator has a lot in common with with the Gators, his alma mater, starting with the fact that the Gators come into the season ranked 13th in the nation, higher than their in-state rivals (including Rubio’s other school, Miami, where he graduated earned his law degree).

Like the Gators, Rubio is expected to defeat his general election opponent, Val Demings, but the contest could still prove a tough one for Rubio. He’ll be helped by his own in-state recruiting pipeline that will include fundraising help from NRSC Chair Rick Scott and joint appearances with Gov. DeSantis down the homestretch (just as SEC schools will always support the SEC over the ACC). Financially, Rubio actually trails Demings at the moment, but polling indicates he still maintains a strong lead, and simulations run by FiveThirtyEight.com show that Rubio wins 9 out of 10 election scenario simulations.

Val Demings – Florida State Seminoles: She’s got the money. She’s got the national attention necessary to recruit talent and resources. She’s got open-field running with no serious contenders in the Democratic primary, so she’ll be rested and ready to play when the general election campaign begins in earnest later this month.

Demings graduated from Florida State, which makes her alma mater the perfect football equivalent to Rubio’s Gators: Two historic programs. A heated in-state rivalry. The Gators with a slight edge — on paper — and have not lost to the Seminoles since 2017. That’s what makes for an epic football game, and it could make for an epic showdown on the November ballot when voters make their choice. Just a few weeks later, on November 25th, the Gators and Noles are set to clash.

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