The 12-person race for the newly created U.S. House District 7 in Florida has eight Republicans, four Democrats and one write-in candidate, all vying for the opportunity to represent parts of Seminole, Orange and Volusia counties in Congress.
With candidates from Lake Mary, Orlando and beyond, just one lives in Volusia County: former DeBary Vice Mayor Erika Benfield.
Benfield, 42, is many things. She’s a mother and a grandmother. She’s an ardent supporter of both former President Donald Trump and current Gov. Ron DeSantis. She’s part of, as she sees it, a new generation of Republicans, in part because of her background.
“When I was raising my young children, we had a nominee by the name of Mitt Romney. That person did not entice me and, by all means, the Republican Party did not reach out to people like me,” Benfield told The Beacon. “I’m Puerto Rican, I’m Hispanic, I’m Latina, and I’m very conservative.”
She continued, “I feel that less government, and control by the people is going to work best; getting government out of the way. I believe that we need to curb our nation back against tyranny and mandates.”
Her frustration with “mandates” comes from her experience as a small-business owner. Benfield and her husband own Frederick’s Wine Room in DeBary, and they had to close the doors when the COVID-19 pandemic first started making headlines in the U.S.
To curb the spread of the virus, Gov. DeSantis ordered restaurants and bars to shut down. He also pushed for social distancing and other COVID-19 mitigation measures on the local level. Benfield opposed the shutdowns, but she doesn’t hold it against DeSantis, specifically.
“We now know that the data they used didn’t equate to the numbers they projected. It was never the same, though, because the public feared dying,” she said.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida had reported 23,302 deaths attributable to COVID-19 by Dec. 31, 2020. As of July 13, 2022, Florida has logged 76,490 deaths attributed to the virus.
While Benfield wishes the pandemic had never become politicized, she prides herself on refusing to ask for vaccination information when it comes to hiring for her business.
Benfield is “pro-life,” she said, and proud that she carried her first child, Andrew, to term when she was 16. It wasn’t easy, she said. She attended classes at Lake Brantley High School by day, and then took parenting classes offered by the United Way after school. Now she has four children — Andrew, Connor, Caleb and Taylor — and two grandchildren.
As for federal rules on same-sex marriage and contraceptive use, along with the recent Supreme Court decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Benfield believes some decisions should just be left to the states.
“As an individual, because of my Christian faith, I don’t judge. As a mom, we all have different children, and they’re all so different and they choose their path,” she said. “I do believe we are created as man and woman. That’s the only way we can reproduce to exist as a society, but I’m not going to judge someone for the decisions they make in their own private home.”
Setting her sights high
Benfield was elected to the DeBary City Council as a political newcomer in 2016. She was proud of her work in DeBary, and in 2020, vacated her City Council seat early to run for Florida House District 27. She was beaten in the primary by former Deltona City Commissioner Webster Barnaby — by just 800 votes.
The decision to run for an even higher elected office, U.S. Congress, came when she was attending a conference hosted by a conservative political action group, the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
“At that … conference, I was prophesied over, and they said to me, ‘You don’t have to figure out how, you just need to commit,’” Benfield said. “So I feel that I’m a vessel to do God’s work and speak for the folks, like you, who are from this district, who know and understand what we need to move our economy forward and protect our Constitution.”
She continued, “Because in order for us to have a republic, which means government controlled by the people, we need to have people with great moral courage. Without great moral courage, then people are easily bought, and I’m not bought by Washington.”
As a candidate, Benfield has raised around $166,000. That amount pales in comparison to the nearly $1 million some Republican candidates in the House District 7 race have raised.
Ultimately, Benfield is running for Congress because she wants to work on matters that are bigger than just Volusia County. At the local level, she said, “I can’t stop the drugs that are coming in at the border. I can’t help with the illegals coming in that are really bad people. I can’t help with the business owners who need microchips.”
The U.S. southern border is a big focus of hers. Local law enforcement aren’t being given enough freedom, she said, to protect communities like DeBary from illegal immigrants.
In such a crowded primary, Benfield said, she sits apart from her opponents — not just because she’s the first alphabetically — but because she is a local.
“I certainly would not want anything to represent us that would create a further divide in our country. And I believe I’m the best person to do that because I’m not here as a flamethrower. I’m not here for celebrity status,” she said. “I’m here because of the district that gave me those opportunities that had me start as a business leader and public servant.”
But despite being the only Volusia County candidate in the running, Benfield didn’t pick up an endorsement from the Republican Executive Committee of Volusia County. That endorsement went to one of her opponents, Cory Mills, an Orange County resident.
It didn’t sting, Benfield said, because she was “nobody’s choice” when she ran for office in DeBary. Plus, she said, it’s not like President Trump was anybody’s first choice, either.
Instead, Benfield is focused on the endorsements she has picked up: Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood, Volusia County School Board Member Jamie Haynes and Volusia County Council Member Billie Wheeler.
“There’s such a divide within the Republican Party right now. I think people are going to take their time, pause and do their own research,” Benfield said. “It’s a clear choice; I have skin in the game.”
That divide in the party is on display in the race for District 7. Coarse rhetoric and blatant appeals to Trump supporters are common among the candidates.
Cory Mills released a controversial political ad boasting about “riot-control munitions,” including tear gas, produced by a company he owns, being used on “ANTIFA rioters” and Black Lives Matter protesters.
“I’m Cory Mills, and I approve this message,” he says in the ad, “because if the media wants to shed some real tears, I can help them out with that.”
Mills picked up an endorsement from the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, in addition to the Volusia County Republican Executive Committee.
Another opponent of Benfield’s is Anthony Sabatini, a far-right firebrand who has repeatedly claimed the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, and championed anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. Sabatini has been endorsed by controversial U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, as well as by Volusia County Chair Jeff Brower.
Benfield shares concerns about the 2020 election, although its validity has been proved with certainty in recounts and court challenges.
Benfield believes Florida got it right, but she took issue with one Florida representative who voted to certify the election results on Jan. 6, 2021: Michael Waltz.
“Do I agree with how he voted? I don’t think that’s how the district would have wanted him to vote,” Benfield said of Waltz. “This is a Republican-leaning district, and at that time, Republicans were very angry and upset.”
Benfield said too many states changed their election rules because of the pandemic.
In many states, vote-by-mail deadlines were loosened, for example, to allow for voters to have their voice heard without going to the polls and risking exposure to COVID-19.
Despite sharing the opinion that the 2020 election may have been fraudulent, Benfield still believes there’s a lot of bluster among her Republican opponents, and she’s not interested in joining in.
Once people really look at all the candidates running to be the Republican nominee for District 7 in November, Benfield said, she believes that she’ll shine.
“I’m a mother of four kids. Believe me, there was a point in life when they were all under 12 years old. There’s a lot of noise that goes on in the back seat of a car, or when you’re starting a business from scratch,” she said. “You could worry about what others are doing, or you could focus on getting the job done.”
The elephant in the room
Since the polls closed Nov. 3, 2020, the validity of the presidential election’s results has become a sticking point among many Republicans, and disproven conspiracy theories about voter fraud and ballot harvesting continue to run rampant, even two years later.
Benfield would not definitively say whether the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, but she thinks, for the most part, that Florida got it right.
“I don’t live a life of embitterment. I believe that we are where we’re supposed to be. The answer to that question is, Florida got it right. Trump won, and we’re in control of Florida,” Benfield said. “Although we saw some irregularities in the primaries [in Volusia County] … By the general, they got it right. Because of COVID, there were thousands of votes that were not counted. That could have affected my race.”
Asked about those potential “irregularities,” Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Lisa Lewis said, with certainty, there were not “thousands” of uncounted votes.
Around 1,500 mail ballots were not counted during the 2020 primary election because they came in too late, she said.
Lewis said there was a ballot problem that affected vote-by-mail ballots distributed to one Port Orange neighborhood.
“I do not know of any irregularities, unless she is speaking about a School Board race inadvertently left off of one area in a subdivision in Port Orange,” Lewis told The Beacon. “I went to every voter who had requested a vote-by-mail ballot with a corrected one. Early voting, everyone got the correct ballot. And, of course, on Election Day, voters received the correct ballot.”
Jan. 6, 2021
Benfield was in Washington, D.C., when violence broke out at the Capitol, but said she was not aware that rioters had stormed the building.
Benfield said she had been invited to D.C. by U.S. Rep. Kat Cammack. On Jan. 5, Benfield said, she met with Cammack, as well as with Rep. Michael Waltz.
Speaking to the two legislators, she said, Benfield learned that Cammack and Waltz intended to vote the following day against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.
On Jan. 6, Cammack — along with Sen. Rick Scott and Reps. Matt Gaetz and Neal Dunn, and 10 other Floridians — were among 147 Republicans who voted against certifying the results.
Waltz was not among those who voted against certifying the election results. He changed his mind, he said, after he saw the violence committed Jan. 6 by rioters who sought to ensure the election was decided in Trump’s favor, despite his losing both the Electoral College and popular vote.
“We settle our political disputes through debate and the law, not violent chaos. I’ve dedicated my life to serving our country in uniform. I’ve fought to help others achieve the much-desired peace and democracy we have long been accustomed to in America,” Waltz said in a statement Jan. 6. “The world is watching and we cannot allow our institutions to tear apart over procedural debates.”
Benfield may have voted differently.
“If you’re playing a board game, and you see that someone is changing the rules after the rules have been set in place from the very beginning, do you think that’s fair? They changed the rules under COVID, and they didn’t follow their own laws,” she told The Beacon. “They changed them. That’s why I’m not in that fight at that time. I wasn’t privy to the information given, but from an outsider playing Monday quarterback football, it didn’t look good at all.”
On Jan. 6, Benfield attended Trump’s Save America rally. She didn’t know of any “stop the steal” efforts, she said, but she could tell Trump was hurt that he hadn’t won.
“We will never give up. We will never concede,” Trump said during the rally.
Benfield said the mood in the crowd listening to Trump was largely positive.
“We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressmen and women,” Trump told them. “We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them, because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”
According to timelines put together by National Public Radio, protestors had already arrived at the Capitol before Trump’s speech was over.
Benfield joined as the crowd marched toward the Capitol after Trump’s speech ended. She said when she saw — “from far away” — people scaling the side of the Capitol, she turned around and went back to her hotel.
“I denounce anyone who went inside,” Benfield said. “The moment I could see from the march — you could see some folks climbing and stuff — I was like, ‘Oh no, I would never allow anybody to do that in our City Hall,’ and we turned back and went to our hotel room.”