Call it a “blue wave” or a “red revolt,” but either way, Democrats are crowing after flipping a state House seat in a nationally watched Sarasota County special election many consider a bellwether heading into the November midterm campaigns.
Siesta Key lawyer Margaret Good on Tuesday defeated Republican opponent James Buchanan, the son of U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, by more than 7 percentage points in a district President Donald Trump won in 2016.
The race drew national attention, with former Vice President Joe Biden doing robocalls for Good and progressive groups from across the country pumping money into her campaign. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, meanwhile, appeared at a rally for her Republican opponent two days before the election.
“I think it was a special election. It was a special because everyone in Sarasota came together, because people are fed up with what’s going on in Tallahassee. They want real representation, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or a non-party voter. You want a representative that’s going to represent your interests. And that is what I promised to the people, to the voters of Sarasota County and that’s what I’m going to deliver,” Good said Wednesday, shortly before being sworn into the House.
Good’s victory was the second special election upset for Democrats since Trump took office a little more than a year ago. In September, Democrat Annette Taddeo defeated former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, who was backed by Tallahassee GOP leaders, in a Miami-Dade County Senate contest. Democrats also are counting St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s win over challenger Rick Baker, a former mayor, as another notch on their post-Trump victory belt.
But Good’s success — in a district where Republicans hold a 10-point voter-registration edge, and Trump won by more than 4 percentage points — has injected more enthusiasm into a state party that has struggled to recruit candidates and has seen a GOP stranglehold on the governor’s mansion, Cabinet and Legislature.
“We were in the Republican heartland and we won not by 10 votes, not by 100 votes, not by 500 votes. We won by a significant margin,” House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said. “What I see is the beginning of a blue wave in Florida. And what I see are big wins in November, not a seat that we’ll lose but a seat that we’ll hold onto.”
Republicans downplayed the loss, saying Democrats have only captured two of five special elections in Florida since Trump moved into the White House and predicting Democrats won’t be able to make significant gains in the fall.
“It was a red revolt,” Anthony Pedicini, a GOP political consultant for Buchanan’s campaign, told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I don’t see a blue wave happening.”
Pedicini called House District 72’s GOP voters “squishy Republicans” who’ve flipped the seat after House members have come to the end of their eight-year terms.
Democrats will be overrun “when November comes and their resources are stretched unbelievably thin across the entire state and they’re not going to be able to laser-beam focus on a seat that flips naturally,” Pedicini forecast.
Pedicini couldn’t say whether voter dissatisfaction in the Republican-dominated district rests in the president or elsewhere.
“Our guys are either not happy that we own the Congress and the White House or they’re disaffected. I just don’t know the answer to that. But I’ll tell you what we’re going to do after last night. We’re going to find the answer,” he said.
State Rep. Joe Gruters, who serves as chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party, said Democrats nationally have been “whipped up” since Trump’s election in 2016, blaming Buchanan’s loss on out-of-state support for Good from Biden and others.
“None of that will be going on in November, when the local GOP will have a full slate of strong candidates running,” Gruters said in a statement.
House Democrats pulled out all the stops with a get-out-the-vote effort on behalf of Good, knocking on doors and manning phone banks. Crossover Republicans and independents helped boost Good to victory
“We did have a better ground game. We ran ‘em out of town,” said state Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Miami Democrat who will take over as minority leader after the November election and is in charge of recruiting House candidates.
Republican stances on controversial issues will continue to give Democrats an edge going into the midterm elections, McGhee said.
Buchanan, for example, made immigration a major focus of his campaign, hammering on the “anti-sanctuary cities” position espoused by Trump and state House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who has also pushed legislation expanding charter schools.
“You keep creating the policies, and we’ll keep winning the seats,” McGhee said.
Highlighting the significance of the Sarasota race on the national stage, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez issued a statement boasting about Good’s victory.
“Just like we did last year with Annette Taddeo, Democrats are organizing, investing, and winning elections across Florida as voters reject Rick Scott and Donald Trump’s disastrous agenda,” Perez said.
Democrats turned out in record numbers in Tuesday’s special election, where 94 percent of the district’s early voters in the race were white and nearly as many were over 50, according to Democratic political consultant Steve Schale.
The district’s voters are “old guard” Republicans and “less Trumpian” than other GOP voters, Schale, who ran President Barack Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008, told the News Service.
“All politics right now is national,” Schale said. “The candidate became the vessel for people to use to send a message to the president.”
Democrats have to continue to recruit candidates like Good and keep registering voters to make gains in the fall, he said.
But whether Trump will remain an albatross for Republican candidates remains to be seen.
“Who knows what the world looks like in November?” Schale said.
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida