Critics said Thursday Gov. Ron DeSantis has postponed a snap election for a key state House seat to prevent a Democratic victory from hurting him in the next day’s Iowa presidential caucuses.
District 35 in Orange and Osceola Counties will be vacant for 200 days by the time of the Jan. 16 election. DeSantis set that date in an executive order issued Wednesday night.
The vote is scheduled for the day after the January 15 Iowa GOP caucuses, where DeSantis and his campaign poured money into ads and campaigners in an attempt to secure an early victory. against former President Donald Trump.
Matt Isbell, a Democratic election analyst, said if a Democrat wins a seat in the House of Representatives, it could hinder DeSantis.
“If the Democrats flip it and accept it, it would undermine DeSantis’ main argument, which is, ‘I’m elected, I’ll be good for downgraded Republicans,’” Isbell said. “[It] would be another thing for his opponents to latch on to. … So it’s very important and he doesn’t want to do anything that could undermine that.”
Rishi Bagga, one of two Democrats running for the seat, agreed that DeSantis had scheduled the election “in line with his presidential ambitions.”
Bagga cited DeSantis’ concurrent executive order that a special election in Miami-Dade District 118 of the State House of Representatives, which leans heavily towards the Republican Party, was scheduled for the October primary and the December general election.
“The only way to explain it is that this has to be a Republican seat, which is a competitive seat, and will hopefully go over to the Democrats,” Bagga said.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
A special election in District 35 became necessary because former State Rep. Fred Hawkins is a Republican from St. Louis. Cloud, who stepped down earlier this month to become president of the State College of South Florida in Highlands County.
Hawkins won the seat by 11 percentage points over Bagga in 2022 amid a red wave and DeSantis’ re-election.
State Democrats, who did not have the resources to help many of the contenders last year as they tried in vain to defend important state seats, are now looking to focus their full attention on this race.
“I would absolutely count [District] 35 as a draw,” Isbell said. “It really depends on the final candidates. … But Democrats are serious about 35.”
Democratic nominee Tom Keane said the late election could be an attempt to thwart any winning Democrat by forcing them to miss all of the early committee meetings, which begin in September, and possibly weeks of session if certification is delayed.
“So, immediately you have to be ready to run for re-election,” Keane said. “And the Republicans will point to the Democrat who won this seat and say, ‘Hey, what did you do for this district?’ … Whoever is elected must jump into action and be ready to immediately dive in and demonstrate their leadership in Tallahassee.”
Scotty Moore, one of three Republicans running in the GOP primary, also criticized the belated date. Primary elections were scheduled by the Governor for November 7th.
“I am disappointed that Florida’s 35th district will not have a state representative speaking on behalf of the people for 200 days,” Moore wrote. “And on top of that, having 10 days of the Florida legislature without a state representative.”
But he wrote: “We are delighted that a date has finally been set and we look forward to winning this election.”