The upcoming special elections for the House of Representatives in Central Florida could be a major test of whether the state’s Democrats can bounce back from the blows they received last year.
The party hopes to continue the Jacksonville mayoral election in May, when focusing on one race in terms of money and attention has resulted in an upset victory.
“It would be a major morale boost if you were kind of piggybacking in Jacksonville, and it gives you momentum,” said Jason Isbell, a Democratic election analyst who runs the MCIMaps website. “But if they lose it, and they lose it by a decent amount, then it will be a big problem.”
Hanging over everything, however, is that Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to set an election date. And time is running out to determine the winner when the session starts in January.
The vacancy in District 35 was opened when State Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud stepped down earlier this month to become president of South Florida State College in Highlands County.
Hawkins has no experience in higher education. He is a staunch ally of DeSantis, who sponsored the state takeover of the Reedy Creek Improvement District at Disney World.
Former State Rep. Fred Hawkins
The Hawkins area was changed in 2022 to include more Democratic parts of Orange County as well as Republican areas of Osceola. As with other suburban areas of Central Florida, the county’s analysis showed that in 2020, voters would vote for President Joe Biden by about 4 points.
“[It] was supposed to be one of the low hanging fruit [for Democrats] last cycle,” Isbell said.
But a red wave, led by DeSantis’ landslide re-election, resulted in the GOP sweeping through all those swing areas of Central Florida. Hawkins won by 11 percentage points against Democrat Rishi Buggy.
The special election could show whether Democrats can get such seats without DeSantis on the ballot, or whether turnout will continue to haunt them, as it did in 2022.
“I definitely think it’s a pretty big factor,” Isbell said. “The Democrats, at least in theory, can win all these… And [District] 35 should definitely be the first domino.”
But, he added, “First, the party has to get people to come at all.”
Nikki Fried, who was elected chairman of the Democratic Party earlier this year, acknowledges that the party “failed in November 2022.”
“We’ve had over a million no-show Democrats who have previously turned up in the gubernatorial election cycle,” she said. “… Because of this, we lost a lot of purple and even blue places. This will not happen again”.
She said state Democrats would recreate what worked in the Jacksonville race.
“The party apparatus at the local, state and national levels is committed to making sure we win,” Fried said.
The Florida Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.
Such an investment by Florida Democrats would be welcomed by Bagga, who has re-applied to run for reelection.
“Last year, I received absolutely no money from the State Party,” Bagga said. “And it was just a reflection of how little money the party had. … For those of us who voted no, it was hard because we were left alone.”
The Republicans flooded the race with ads and mailing lists, many of which featured black-and-white images of Buggy calling him a “radical.”
Mailing list against Rishi Buggy sent by Florida House Republican Campaign Committee in 2022.
“Look, I have a different name,” Bagga said. “If elected, I will be the first Indian or South Asian American ever elected to the Legislative Assembly. I think people do have questions. Who is this guy? Where is he from? And it’s a little easier to capitalize on it when you have unlimited money to throw against someone.”
Some of the mailing lists claimed that Bagga wanted non-citizens to vote. “It’s scary to think what would happen if we allowed foreigners to vote in Florida elections,” one ad said.
The source of this false claim, according to Buggy, was a letter he wrote to the editor at the FloridaToday.news when he was in high school about being a green card holder who can’t wait to vote one day.
“I have to tell you, when I was the captain of the debate team, I never thought that what I wrote then would haunt me 23 years later, but here we are,” Bagga said.
Fried said the state party should do more to expose “this is clearly racial profiling that the Republican Party is doing in an attempt to manipulate photos and factual posts of our candidates.”
This time, Bagga said he grossed more in his first month of racing than in any similar period last year, earning more than $26,000.
“I think it reflects that people are excited about this race,” he said. “And if we can show victory here, if we can show that we can win in an area like this… it will all help in 2024.”
Bagga is one of five candidates running, including two Democrats and three Republicans.
On the GOP side, names include Ken Davenport, a flight attendant and former probation officer who ran against Hawkins in the 2022 primary, Osceola School Board member Erica Booth, and Scotty Moore, an unsuccessful opponent of U.S. Democratic Rep. Darren Soto last year. . .
Moore, who raised $77,000, said the Republicans are still the front-runners despite the county’s Democratic leanings.
“The bottom line is that this is still a conservative state and still a conservative territory,” Moore said. “People care about their families, people care about protecting our children. And this is something that goes beyond parties. … That’s where Florida is heading. This is where Florida is heading. And that’s what people want.”
Davenport and Booth did not respond to requests for comment.
So far, Buggy’s only opponent in the Democratic primary is Tom Keane, a former Orlando City Council candidate who served on the Orlando Citizens Police Supervisory Board and the Veterans Advisory Council. As of June, it has grossed $2,817.
Keane, who lost to Bagga by 47 votes in the 2022 primary, said there were “a lot of issues that basically fired people up. If you look at abortion affordability, if you look at book bans, if you look at don’t say you’re gay, if you look at homeowners’ insurance, all of these issues point to Democrats wanting to take over.”
However, exactly when the elections would take place was still up in the air.
In 2021, Democrats had to sue before DeSantis called a snap primary for three formerly Democratic-held South Florida seats. But the primary was scheduled for January 2022, shortly after the start of that year’s legislative session, and the general election didn’t take place until March, just three days before the end of the session.
This year, Orange County constituency leader Bill Coles recommended that the state hold a primary on August 22 and a general election on November 7, the same day as Orlando’s city elections, but those dates are becoming increasingly unlikely.
“At the moment, it’s just what the state offers as dates,” Coles said. “We are at the mercy of whatever they give us.”
Candidates also said they were disappointed with the delay in calling new elections.
“The governor needs to step up and do his job,” Keane said. … We are fast approaching a point where, if we don’t hold a snap election pretty soon, a representative won’t be sitting when the session starts in January. And that’s just not right.”
Moore echoed the opinion of the Republican Party.
“There is no reason to drag this out any longer,” Moore said. “Gov. DeSantis can call a special election at any time. … Let’s continue”.
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.