It's been seven days since the 2022 Apopka Mayoral election concluded, but many will analyze its outcome for years to come. Mayor Bryan Nelson edged Commissioner Kyle Becker in the closest election in Apopka since former Commissioner Sam Ruth defeated former Commissioner Linda Laurendeau with 51.35% of the vote in the 2014 runoff for Seat #3 on the city commission.
By 7 pm on election night, many Apopka residents were on the Orange County Supervisor of Elections (SOE) website, refreshing their devices every few seconds in anticipation of the election's results. By 7:15 pm, the first batch of votes appeared:
Election Day Voting:
Bryan Nelson 1,091 - Kyle Becker 974.
A few minutes later, the SOE added the early voting tally, and the Nelson lead had been closed considerably:
Bryan Nelson 1,845 - Kyle Becker 1,843.
The candidates were within an astounding two votes of one another, with a little over 3,000 vote-by-mail ballots remaining.
By 7:20 pm, Nelson found himself just two votes ahead with 3,082 vote-by-mail ballots remaining. In 2020, what you didn't want to be was a Republican up two votes with 3,082 vote-by-mail ballots remaining.
In the 2020 Presidential election, only 30% of Republican voters voted by mail, while 59% of Democrat voters used the vote-by-mail process. Before the election, President Donald Trump went as far as to say this about voting by mail:
"Universal mail-in voting is going to be catastrophic," he said. "It's going to make our country the laughing stock of the world."
But clearly, 2022 is not 2020.
At about 7:35, the SOE had sent the final results. Nelson received 1,798 mailed votes to Becker's 1,276, giving him a slim margin of victory and four more years as Mayor of Apopka.
More on vote-by-mail later.
In the end, Nelson was reelected with 3,601 votes (53.87%) over Becker with 3,107 (46.13%) votes.
So what led to Nelson's victory? Can it be broken down and understood?
Let's dive in...
A municipal election is a little like looking into an unfamiliar room through a keyhole. There are things you can see. There are things you get a glimpse of and can assess. And there are things you cannot see and will not know until you open the door.
The 2022 Apopka Mayoral election fits that description. There were factors known, speculated on, and unknown. But now, with all the details available, here are the elements I think led to Nelson's victory.
Election Day began with an overcast sky and moderate participation at the Apopka precincts. Rain was in the forecast. There were a little over 100 voters per hour, and expectations of record turnout were evaporating.
By early afternoon, the clouds were gone, humidity replaced mild temperatures, and the voters ticked up a bit per hour. It looked as though turnout could match the 2018 model.
By late afternoon people were getting off work, and turnout surged, surpassing the 2018 mayoral record of 6,451 voters and eventually landing on 6,762. It broke the record of total voters in a mayoral election but lagged under 20% of the 35,000 registered Apopka voters.
It was not the turnout model a challenger wants.
After 3,022 vote-by-mail ballots received and 1,625 early voters, only 2,055 election day ballots were cast, which generally favors an incumbent.
So what kept voters away?
Nelson filled Apopka mailboxes with campaign ads that depicted Becker in a black and white photo and said, among other things, 'his fiscal irresponsibility is costing you higher taxes, higher wastewater rates, more debt, and sweetheart developer deals.' On the back of the mailer, it went on to say, 'Kyle Becker leaves the taxpayers holding the bag for his bad financial decisions.' Nelson followed those mailers with similar ads in The Apopka Chief.
Apopka residents also received a mailer late in the election cycle from a Tallahassee organization called"The Committee to protect Florida" that attacked Becker with rhetoric akin to Nelson's.
Was it effective? It's difficult to say.
Typically, a campaign would feature their accomplishments in the last month rather than attempting to define an opponent. It's an unusual tactic for an incumbent. Still, it could explain the low turnout percentage of the election when it seemed that the excitement level was high.
Nelson consistently outraised Becker throughout the election cycle and outspent him in the closing months. Incumbents who enjoy a significant fundraising lead are usually successful in getting reelected.
After the fundraising reports for February 5th-18th were released, Nelson raised $85,560 compared to Becker at $33,880.
The simple truth is, it's hard to beat an incumbent with a fundraising advantage.
First, let me dispel any rumors about the SOE. I read quite a few on social media.
Yes, it's unusual that the vote-by-mail ballots are totaled last. But keep in mind... the SOE was conducting multiple elections around Orange County. But according to the SOE's office, there were 86 vote-by-mail ballots received at 5:30 pm by the USPS, and 10 ballots were dropped off at the office after 6pm. Because of the late arrivals, the SOE posted election day and early voting totals first.
The bigger question might be how Nelson overcame the Republican's 2020 aversion to vote-by-mail ballots. The answer may be from a mailer he sent before vote-by-mail ballots got mailed by the SOE.
In January, Nelson mailed a letter with an application to request a vote-by-mail ballot to Republicans in Apopka. It was controversial at the time because it had a self-addressed, stamped envelope with Nelson's address on it rather than the SOE's office.
But in a close election, it may have made a difference... if only to give Republicans the green light to vote-by-mail in 2022.
Nelson took a fundamental approach to win a close election. He utilized his fundraising advantages to mail Apopka residents both negative and positive ads and held on to win a narrow victory.
Despite a turnout bump of 311 voters in 2022, Nelson still received 502 fewer votes than he did in 2018. Becker received 738 more votes than former Mayor Joe Kilsheimer did in 2018, but still fell short by 494 votes.
It's hard to see the outcome as a mandate by the Apopka voters, and it's equally difficult to point to any specific issues as the reason for Nelson's reelection.
However, a win is a win.
Congratulations to you, Mayor Nelson. You fought hard and remain undefeated in municipal, county, and state elections.
And thank you, Commissioner Becker, for six years of service to Apopka. You ran an impressive campaign, and you gave your all to the City Council.
I know it's traditional to call for Apopka to unify, come together as a community, and move forward. That's what we do after an election. I have even attended events designed to start the healing process.
I'm just not sure that's the healthiest direction for Apopka to take right now.
There are issues in this city that deserve to move forward and need to continue past the election. There are issues that need champions to keep them alive. There are causes that may not be as important to the City Council as they are to you.
My call to Apopka is this:
Be respectful. Be vigilant. Be passionate. And stay engaged.
Yes, elections do have consequences. But do not let the outcome of an election change what's important to you.
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