Good morning, Apopka. Welcome to the stretch run.
We are just a week away from Election Day. Over 2,300 vote-by-mail ballots have been returned. Early voting has begun in Apopka, and the finish line is finally in sight.
In all likelihood, the outcome of this election is already decided, and nothing the candidates do from here will change the outcome. Unless it's close, and then... well, everything they do in the last seven days could easily change the outcome.
Sometimes local elections are like snow globes. It's hard to tell what's happening once it's shaken. The only way to know is when the snow settles. I will say, unlike most municipal elections, both candidates have compelling evidence to hang their hats on for victory on March 8th, and both have areas of concern.
There are 10 factors that I think will make the difference in the 2022 Apopka Mayoral Election. Here is my analysis on how Nelson and Becker are faring in each:
Typically, if you are using negative advertising late in a campaign, you are losing. That is even more true if you are the incumbent.
Nelson sent a mailer to Apopka residents which depicted Becker in a black and white photo and said '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 that mailer with two straight weeks of negative ads in The Apopka Chief.
It's an unusual tactic for an incumbent not to be highlighting their own accomplishments in the final days of an election unless they believe they are behind in the polls.
As concerning as negative ads late in the election look, Nelson has 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. Nelson outspent Becker $53,172.46 to $21,147 and still has $32,387.54 in his campaign account compared to Becker with $12,733 remaining.
Becker set goals for fundraising and met them. A grassroots approach was his plan all along. Still, it's hard to imagine he couldn't have put additional money to good use.
In the second debate, Nelson said he has knocked on the doors of 4,000 Apopka voters. Becker estimates he too has knocked on thousands of doors but did not estimate an exact figure. This is perhaps the most important factor in a municipal election, but by all accounts, both Nelson and Becker are hard at work in the neighborhoods of Apopka connecting with voters on a personal basis.
Nelson has taken the traditional approach of municipal candidates by filling Apopka with signs on every major thoroughfare, while Becker is more targeted. Both Becker and Nelson also have hundreds of requests for lawn signs from their supporters, according to both campaigns.
As politicians have learned in the past few years, social media can make or break a candidate. This is even more true for municipal elections.
Social media is the razor's edge in local politics. It can propel an unknown candidate into a frontrunner. It can deliver a powerful message to a large audience for pennies on the dollar. It can give one candidate the ability to define their opponent with an unrelenting, constant attack.
It was true in the 2018 mayoral election, and it is again the case in 2022.
If any factor in this election has done a complete 180-degree turn from 2018 to 2022, it's the tone of Apopka social media. In 2018, Nelson seemed to have multiple supporters and pages who both defended Nelson and attacked Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer.
In 2022, however, the tables have turned to favor Becker over Nelson both in positive descriptions of the challenger, and attacks on the incumbent.
In 2018, Nelson, as a challenger, kept Apopka talking about overspending, budget malpractice, depleting reserves, and raising taxes. Kilsheimer, at best, defended his positions but was never able to make a case for the future.
In 2022, Becker has kept Apopka talking about economic development, dollar stores, South Apopka annexation, staffing sizes of the Apopka Fire Department's apparatus, and the Rock Springs Ridge HOA attempting to buy its golf course lands. Nelson, at best, has defended his positions but was never able to make a case for the future.
Throughout this election cycle, Becker has been able to keep the conversation where it seems to favor him.
In 2018, Nelson told me in a post-election interview that he was most nervous during the debate. He is far more comfortable face-to-face with people than in public speaking or a debate setting.
Certainly, there was nothing Nelson said in the two debates that will cost him the election, but he also didn't win the election based on his performance.
An incumbent wants to use a debate to show he is more qualified than his opponent. It's an opportunity to score a knockout and cruise to election day. But Nelson seemed to focus on past performance and small details, even when the question asked for loftier ideas and to look forward.
Becker took the opportunity in both debates to contrast his approach to Nelson's, while also showing a grasp of the issues a mayor might face while in office. He was also able to frame most questions to answers that were forward-looking - which is exactly what a challenger for office wants to do.
Becker certainly didn't score a knockout, but he did establish himself as qualified to hold the office.
It's hard to determine how important endorsements are unless one candidate simply sweeps them all. That's not the case here.
Becker got off to an early lead in endorsements with the Apopka Professional Firefighter's Association, the Orange County Firefighters Association, and retired Apopka Fire Chief Chuck Carnesale. Nelson received the nod from the Greater Orlando Builders Association, BusinessForce, and The Apopka Chief.
Yes, it's true. It's always better to be the incumbent in municipal elections. In mayoral contests across the country, the broad brush estimate is about 90% of incumbent mayors are reelected. Of course, there are factors that can minimize that figure, but in general, if a person wins office once, they are likely to keep winning.
Apopka MayorJohn Land is the strongest proof of that fact. Land held the center seat on the City Council for over 60 years.
But in 2014, things seemed to change for Apopka incumbents - they started losing. Land lost to Kilsheimer for mayor, and then-challenger Diane Velazquez defeated incumbent Commissioner Marilyn A. Ustler-McQueen.
In 2016, Becker defeated 40-year incumbent Commissioner Bill Arrowsmith, and Doug Bankson defeated incumbent Sam Ruth.
In 2018, Nelson defeated Kilsheimer, and Alice Nolan defeated Velazquez. That marked six straight incumbents losing their seats in a span of three election cycles.
Commissioner Doug Bankson and Becker did break that streak in 2020 when they won reelection to Seats #3, and #4 respectively, but it's clear that in Apopka, incumbents do not have an easy path to victory.
In a close election, it always comes down to turnout. The candidate that can get their supporters to the polls, or to mail in a ballot is the secret sauce that decides winners and losers.
Don't you hate when a pundit says that?
It seems obvious. But is there a method to the madness of this overused cliche'?
In 2014, Kilsheimer defeated Land because of the high turnout in their runoff. Kilsheimer received 3,352 votes and clearly created new voters on his way to defeating Land.
In 2018, Nelson defeated Kilsheimer because of the high turnout in the general election. Nelson received 4,103 votes and clearly created new voters on his way to victory over Kilsheimer.
It becomes clear from those two elections and countless others that challengers need high turnout models to defeat incumbents. They have to create new voters to overcome the base of voters most incumbents have cultivated over the years.
Kilsheimer was unable to hold onto his 3,352 voters in 2018, but what if Nelson simply gets his 4,103 voters back in 2022? That would mean Becker would have to earn 4,104 votes to win - which would be 8,207 voters (a 23.2% turnout).
That seems like a tall order, but it's actually attainable.
As of February 28th, 2,365 vote-by-mail ballots have been returned in the Apopka elections. It seems likely Apopka voters will eclipse the 2,637 voters in 2018 who either voted early or by mail considering early voting in Apopka just got underway today, and vote-by-mail ballots are being returned at a rate of 90.96 per day. It suggests that turnout could reach those levels by 7 pm on March 8th.
There is room for optimism and room for concern in both the Becker and Nelson campaigns heading into the final week of the election. Nelson is the incumbent with a large fundraising advantage. Becker seems to control the narrative and kept social media in his favor. There is certainly a pathway to victory for both candidates. But who is going to win?
It will all come down to turnout.
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