The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrat Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick wins House seat in Florida special election

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick was declared the winner of the Democratic primary for South Florida’s 20th Congressional District. (John McCall/AP)

Earlier versions of this article misspelled the last name of Mitch Ceasar, a former Broward County Democratic Party chair.

Democrat Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick won Tuesday’s election to fill Florida’s vacant 20th Congressional District, returning her party to the 222-seat majority it held after the 2020 elections.

Cherfilus-McCormick, a 42-year old health-care company CEO, easily defeated Republican nominee Jason Mariner in a seat drawn to be safe for Democrats. She will replace the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D), whom she had challenged in the 2018 and 2020 primaries.

Hastings died last April after a bout of pancreatic cancer. Local Democrats have been frustrated over the 280-day gap between his passing and the special election called by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — timing that left the House majority one seat down most of the year.

The outcome, projected by the Associated Press shortly after the polls closed, was not a surprise: After early voting concluded on Sunday, registered Democrats had cast more than 38,000 of about 50,000 total early ballots. The 20th district, which connects majority-Black parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties, went for President Biden by 3 to 1 in 2020. Both major parties saw the November Democratic primary — which Cherfilus-McCormick won by just five votes, after a recount — as the decisive battle for the seat.

The Democratic win will give Florida its first Haitian American member of Congress, in a region with about half a million people of Haitian descent. Cherfilus-McCormick, 42, ran as a supporter of Medicare-for-all, a Green New Deal, a $20-per-hour minimum wage and $1,000 “permanent recovery checks” for adults making less than $75,000 per year.

“We had a message that was actually about helping people,” Cherfilus-McCormick said in an interview after clinching the primary. “It wasn’t just: Elect me, I’ve been around for a long time.”

Follow The Post’s live results in the special election

The Democrat, who has never held elected office, defeated a crowded field of state legislators and county officials to win the nomination. Under Florida’s resign-to-run law, all had to leave office by the Jan. 11 election date. Primaries to replace those legislators were also held on Tuesday; DeSantis appointed two political allies with Democratic ties to the vacant county offices, with those elections coming later this year.

One of the defeated Democrats, former Broward County commissioner Dale Holness, filed a lawsuit in late November 2020 arguing that Cherfilus-McCormick’s $1,000 payment policy amounted to a voter bribe and asking for a batch of ballots that arrived after Election Day to be counted. Holness has already filed to run in the next Democratic primary for the seat, in August, but no judge took up his case during the election.

“Some people file election litigation because they think they’re right,” said Mitch Ceasar, a former Broward County Democratic Party chair working with the Cherfilus-McCormick campaign. “Others file frivolous litigation for political reasons.”

Republicans nominated local ad company owner Mariner in the November primary and supported him after opponents questioned whether his criminal record disqualified him from running. Mariner, 36, has talked openly about his past convictions for theft and cocaine possession and his time in jail, and the Palm Beach GOP donated $23,000 to his campaign.

“Why do we keep electing people to represent us who are out of touch with we, the people?” Mariner said to Local 10 News last week, while early voting was underway.

In the candidates’ pre-Christmas campaign finance filings, Mariner had less than $24,000 left to spend. Cherfilus-McCormick, who had lent her campaign millions of dollars, entered the final days with more than $1.3 million on hand.

That money funded a final get-out-the-vote push, even as Cherfilus-McCormick’s wealth became an issue in the race. She filed her personal financial disclosure two weeks ago, reporting an income of more than $6.4 million, up from a reported $86,000 in 2020. After the Sun-Sentinel newspaper cited her late disclosure as a reason it was making no endorsement in the race, Cherfilus-McCormick said in a statement that she had the ability to “fund most of my campaign” by herself instead of “placing the burden on those facing economic challenges” and dealing with the coronavirus.

“Sadly, as a Black woman, I am all too familiar with having to prove myself, double, despite my successes, even to those who claim to be without bias,” she added.

Cherfilus-McCormick will be seated as soon as the results are certified. When she takes office, Democrats will hold 10 more seats than Republicans. There is one vacancy in the House, with an April primary set in central California to replace former congressman Devin Nunes (R).