Florida Democrats Face Challenges, Find Bright Spot in Central Florida House District Win

Florida Democrats have faced significant challenges in recent years, with one of the most notable being Governor Ron DeSantis' decisive victory over Charlie Crist in 2022, winning by a margin of 20 points. However, the party received a significant morale boost on Tuesday when a Central Florida House District was won in a special election, while DeSantis and his Republican allies returned from snowy Iowa after facing defeat.

In a special election for House District 35, Tom Keen, a Democrat and entrepreneur in the aerospace industry, emerged victorious over Erika Booth, a Republican and Osceola County School Board member. The previous occupant of that seat, former State Rep. Fred Hawkins, had established a strong presence in Osceola County Republican circles before stepping down last summer to assume the role of president at South Florida State College.

Governor DeSantis exercised his authority to determine the date for the special election, opting for Tuesday, January 16, conveniently scheduled just a day after Monday's Iowa caucuses. There was dissatisfaction from both Democrats and Republicans regarding the chosen date, which fell ten days into Florida's 2024 legislative session. This timing meant that the eventual winner would be unable to participate in crucial meetings and introduce bills. Democrats went as far as accusing him of deliberately selecting a late date to avoid the possibility of a defeat that could embarrass the governor before Iowans cast their votes. It is now clear that the accusation was remarkably accurate, although its validity was not readily apparent at the time.

Over the years, the Florida Republican Party (RPOF) has enjoyed the benefits of a steadily increasing voter registration advantage, which has played a significant role in their electoral successes. In the most recent election, Hawkins emerged victorious in his bid for re-election to the HD35 seat, securing a comfortable 10-point margin. This outcome is particularly noteworthy considering that President Joe Biden had previously won the district by a margin of 5 points in the 2020 election.

In his recently-released book (affiliate link), titled "Swamp Monsters: Trump vs. DeSantis―the Greatest Show on Earth (or at Least in Florida)," Matt Dixon, a national politics reporter for NBC News, highlights the consistent success of Florida Republicans over the years. According to Dixon, their voter registration efforts have resulted in a continuous stream of victories, with no signs of slowing down.

In Dixon's analysis, he highlighted the significant impact of the Democrats' registration advantage in Florida during Barack Obama's victory over John McCain in 2008. However, over the years, the Democrats' numbers have steadily declined. In 2014, Rick Scott narrowly defeated Crist with a slim margin of 0.2%, despite the Democrats' reduced registration advantage of just 457,728 people. In the most recent election, the GOP has managed to maintain a voter registration advantage of approximately 300,000 people under DeSantis' leadership.

The Republican voter advantage, along with notable defeats such as Crist's, has presented a challenging situation for Florida Democrats in garnering support from both national left-leaning donors and some of their own influential in-state donors. Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried has been working tirelessly to change that perception. With a strategic allocation of resources and a strong grassroots effort, the Democrats successfully propelled Keen to victory in the district.

Florida Politics reporter Jacob Ogles conducted an in-depth analysis of the race, revealing that Booth's campaign had a significant advantage over Keen's in terms of fundraising and spending. Booth, the Republican candidate, managed to collect nearly $323,000 and spent approximately $260,000, as reported through Jan. 11. In contrast, Keen, the Democrat, raised about $121,000 and spent $104,000.

However, the Florida House Democratic Campaign Committee (FHDCC) made a significant impact by investing over $541,000 in this special election. This amount surpassed the $207,000 spent by the Florida House Republican Campaign Committee during the same period, as reported by Ogles.

A number of elected Democrats, including State Rep. Anna Eskamani, State Rep. Fentrice Driskell, former State Rep. (and current state senate candidate) Carlos Guillermo Smith, Congressman Maxwell Frost, and others, actively participated in door knocking and phone banking efforts. They also took to social media, urging their followers to get involved by volunteering or donating to Keen's campaign and emphasizing the importance of voter turnout.

In a shocking turn of events, the RPOF found itself in turmoil as their chairman, Christian Ziegler, was forced to step down amidst a scandal. The scandal involved serious allegations of rape made by a woman who claimed to have been involved in a previous encounter with Ziegler and his wife, Bridget Ziegler, the founder of Moms for Liberty. Ziegler is currently under investigation for serious criminal offenses, including rape and video voyeurism. It is alleged that he recorded both a previous encounter and the incident that led to the rape accusation. In a series of decisive moves, the RPOF executive board made the decision to suspend Ziegler's powers in December. This decision was followed by his formal ousting on January 8, with Evan Power stepping in as the newly elected chair.

With just over a week remaining, Power assumed control of the Republicans' get-out-the-vote operations in HD35. In a move that raised eyebrows, DeSantis' campaign brought along a group of GOP legislators and party officials to Iowa. What caused even more controversy was the presence of Florida state employees and the governors' appointed agency heads.

As DeSantis' team and numerous Florida Republicans braved the frigid -45 degree wind chill in Iowa, they witnessed their candidate suffer defeat in all 99 counties. However, the Republicans lacked the prominent figures that typically draw attention.

The Republicans' lack of unity ultimately prevented them from overcoming the Democrats' strong organization and energy. According to unofficial results on Tuesday night, Keen was leading with 51.3% while Booth trailed behind with 48.7%, indicating a significant margin between the two candidates. Florida Democrats were overjoyed by Keen's victory, as expected.

Party Chair Fried emphasized the extensive preparation that went into reclaiming HD35, highlighting a robust grassroots get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaign with a dedicated team of 150 volunteers. On Election Day, the party made an impressive 50,000 calls to voters and knocked on over 4,000 doors over the weekend.

Keen's victory marked a significant milestone for the Democrats, as it was the first time they had successfully flipped a legislative seat since 2018. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried expressed pride in their ability to secure this early victory for the 2024 elections, despite facing a turnout disadvantage and being outspent five to one. She confidently stated that this marks the initial move towards diminishing the Republican legislature's supermajority and reclaiming Florida.


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