A post on Facebook last week illustrates just how much divisive national politics have infiltrated local elections.
Steve Lapinski, a former Tampa Bay area political consultant who now lives out of the country, shared a screenshot of a sponsored ad on Facebook depicting St. Petersburg City Council member Ed Montanari as a Trump-supporting Republican.
It shows a black and white photo of Montanari with a red “Make America Great Again” hat photoshopped sloppily onto his head.
“Ed Montanari: He Voted For Trump! He thinks like Trump! He breaks the law like Trump!,” the ad reads.
It goes on to tell voters to elect Orlando Acosta, the Democrat in the race.
Shelve that particular race and instead look more broadly at what is happening with this campaign strategy.
St. Pete City Council elections are non-partisan. Historically there has been some level of partisanship on display in the form of laying out politically ideology. For instance, laying out whether a candidate supports LGBT equality? That’s an issue typically perceived as having support from Democrats and not from Republicans, though there are certainly exceptions.
But broadly, it wasn’t until Donald Trump became President that such vitriolic levels of partisanship have dominated local elections.
It came up in Tampa last year when opponents in the city’s mayoral election used David Straz’s former support for Trump against him even though he later said his support was a mistake.
In the first example, Kriseman’s Trump strategy was successful. In Straz’s, it might have been, but his campaign was flawed enough to probably have been toppled without a Trump tie.
The difference in Montanari’s case is simple. Montanari is a popular incumbent, even among Democrats who disagree with him politically. They support him because, in large measure, city politics steer clear of most contentious issues with deep political divides.
Kriseman entered his race as less popular but was still accepted as a Mayor who governed in a more partisan way than City Council.
But back to the Facebook exchange. It brings up another point in local politics, highlighting the fine line Democrats are walking nationally as the nation braces for ongoing impeachment inquiries and a political divide between those who think the process is merited and those who view it as a “witch hunt.”
Democrats are highlighting a series of lies and mistruths shared by the President — The Washington Post counted 13,435 of them as of the middle of October — and Republican complacency on not condemning them.
In his post, Lapinski calls Acosta’s ad “pure garbage” that shows “no regard for the truth.” Montanari did vote for Trump, but previously pointed out he did not campaign for him or donate to his campaign. Acosta’s campaign has called Montanari out for posting his party affiliation on a campaign ad, which is a campaign finance violation, but outside of that there is no evidence that he has broken the law. Montanari’s voting record on City Council, while occasionally siding with conservative ideals, has been anything but Trump-like.
“The Dems are starting to look as bad as the Repuglicans,” wrote one commenter, James Longstreth.
That one comment begs a very simple, yet important question for Democrats: Is using Trump to bolster a campaign doing more harm than good?
Depending on the outcome of impeachment proceedings, Democrats may very well find out come 2020.