Two Republicans, one Democrat, hope to succeed Halsey Beshears

With two Republicans set to battle it out for their party’s nomination at an April 9 special primary election to replace Halsey Beshears, Franklin County will be without a state representative when the Florida Legislature begins its session March.

And in the event that a lone Democrat pursues his longshot bid for the House District 7 seat, Beshears’ successor won’t be selected until the June 18 special election, more than a month after the session is expected to conclude in early May.

Beshears, a Monticello Republican who won re-election last year without opposition, has begun work as Gov. DeSantis’ choice to head the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, his confirmation a foregone conclusion by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Beshears has represented since 2012 the sprawling district which includes all of Franklin County, as well as some or all of Gulf, Calhoun, Jefferson, Lafayette, Leon, Liberty, Madison, Taylor and Wakulla counties.

Mike Watkins, from Wakulla County, and Jason Shoaf, from Gulf County, have stepped forward as Republican candidates, and Ryan Terrell, from Leon County, has announced plans to seek the Democrat nomination. Wakulla County Commissioner Ralph Thomas began a short-lived campaign for the seat, but decided earlier this month to bow out.

“For the past few weeks, I have spent the vast majority of my time traveling the 10 counties that make up House District 7, meeting our neighbors and listening to their issues and concerns,” Thomas wrote in an email. “While doing so, two things became abundantly clear: First, it is a tremendous commitment to represent the largest district in the state. Second, an extreme sacrifice is required through time away from family, primary employment and recreation time.

“At this point in my life, I have concluded, the sacrifice would not allow me to be the best that I should be, in all of these areas,” he said.

“I am humbled and appreciative of the folks who encouraged me to run and supported the campaign. I also appreciate everyone who expressed their preference for me to continue serving as a commissioner, while committing to support me on whichever path I chose,” he wrote, thanking Beshears for his service and wishing him the best in his new post.

“For the remaining candidates, I encourage you to run a clean race that reflects the values of rural North Florida. May the winner have the heart of a servant and the strength and encouragement needed to be a great representative of the wonderful people whom he will be serving,” Thomas wrote.

With Beshears facing a term limit that would have prevented him from seeking reelection in 2020, Watkins took steps a year ago to run for the seat, and so amassed an enormous war chest of campaign contributions, more than $150,000 in money and in-kind donations as of the first of this year.

In his announcement, Watkins thanked Beshears for “his commitment to public service and the work he has done over the past six years.

“As a pro-family conservative, I am pleased to announce that I hope to use my 26 years of experience working with families and businesses throughout the Big Bend to fight for our values in the state capitol,” he wrote in a news release.

“For too long, rural North Florida has been ignored by most Tallahassee politicians. My career has been spent working alongside the families of this district, fighting for our conservative values, standing up for our fair share, and rebuilding our community in the wake of opioids-meth and Hurricane Michael,” he said. “I will work for our communities to make sure our way of life will be even better for our children.”

In his campaign announcement, Shoaf, who has so far raised only about one-quarter of Watkins’ total, wrote that "what we need in North Florida is good-paying jobs, and I'll work with President Trump and Governor DeSantis to bring vocational training programs to the Big Bend, especially to our rural communities. With the right skills and training, these hardworking men and women can better support their families."

"I'll fight for our North Florida values when I'm in the Florida House,” he said. “I'm ready to join President Trump and Governor DeSantis. Let's drain the swamp, once and for all."

Shoaf, 39, is vice president in the St. Joe Natural Gas Company, and owner of two businesses he started, Gulf South Self Storage and Alliance Property Management. He also serves as one of seven members of the Triumph Gulf Coast board of directors. He previously served as vice-chairman of the Port of Port St. Joe, and started his career as a successful realtor.

Watkins is CEO of Big Bend Community Based Care, a private agency that manages a network that provides child welfare and behavioral health services, such as substance abuse and mental health services, in northwest Florida, throughout 18 counties from as far west as Pensacola and as far east as Taylor County. Prior to that, he worked for 13 years with the Florida Department of Children of Families, completing his stint there as a district administrator in heavily populated Central Florida before the state transitioned to a system of community-based behavioral health services.

Watkins visited the county Monday morning for a meet-and-greet appearance at Sea Oats Gallery on St. George Island, hosted by gallery owner Joyce Estes and Sheriff A.J. Smith, who is among a half-dozen sheriffs within the district to have endorsed Watkins’ candidacy.

“We distributed a ton of yard signs,” Watkins said. “It was a good morning.”

Shoaf has received the support of North Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison and former House Speaker Allan Bense.

Watkins’s announcement noted that he is an eighth generation Floridian raised on a family homestead dating back to 1893 in the Panhandle. It stressed that he “believes strongly in family, the Second Amendment and the power of faith and conviction. Mike knows first-hand the devastation that Hurricane Michael and the opioid epidemic has had on our community and has directly led responses to both crises in the Panhandle.”

In his announcement, Shoaf noted the severe impact of Hurricane Michael.

“Communities all along Florida’s Forgotten Coast were devastated, homes washed away and businesses wrecked. Every part of the district was impacted by Hurricane Michael in some way or another,” reads the announcement. “From the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to Hurricane Michael, this region has had more than its fair share of natural disasters. But the people of our community are resilient and determined, and I know we’ll come back stronger than ever. As state representative, I’ll do absolutely everything I can to support recovery efforts.”

With Carrabelle’s Will Kendrick the last Democrat to represent District 7 (and he switched his party affiliation to Republican during his last term in office). Democrat Ryan Terrell is considered a long-shot to capture the seat.

As of the end of 2018, Terrell, 26, who previously worked as a state legislative aide and currently directs Young Democrats of America’s Southeast operations, had raised only $192 in in-kind contributions.

In an interview with Florida Politics, Terrell said relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael is his top priority, just ahead of fostering economic development and defeating the cycle of poverty in the district.

“Our rural communities are being left behind, and they feel like they’re not being valued for their work and treated with the same respect as everyone else,” Terrell told the online news service, specializing in coverage of the world of state politics.

While he promises to remain in the race, and pick up financial support from area Democrats, in the event neither Terrell nor any fellow Democrat does not follow through with a candidacy, the April 9 ballot box will be an open primary, open to all voters, and the winner will be immediately named the new state rep. Otherwise, the special election will be in June.