The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrat wins legislative seat in Florida as once-sleepy state races heat up in Trump era

Margaret Good, left, the Democratic candidate for a state House seat in Florida, campaigns for votes in Sarasota, Fla., on Monday. She won the election Tuesday. (Dave Weigel/The Washington Post)

SARASOTA, Fla. — Democrats continued a streak of special election wins with a victory along the Gulf Coast of Florida on Tuesday, the 36th red-to-blue switch in a state legislative race since the 2016 election.

Democrat Margaret Good triumphed by seven points in the Sarasota-based 72nd District, defeating Republican candidate James Buchanan in an area that backed Donald Trump for president in 2016 by more than four points.

The upset is likely to reverberate through the two major parties as they gear up for the midterm election cycle. Although Republicans have been buoyed in recent weeks by the sense that their tax legislation will be popular among voters, and by new polling showing that Trump’s popularity has ticked up, Tuesday’s outcome offers yet another data point that voter enthusiasm lies with Democrats.

“They’re winning elections in places where they shouldn’t be,” said Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, at a Sunday afternoon rally for the Republican candidate. “We’ve seen them win statehouse seats in Wisconsin. We’ve seen them win big mayor’s races in New Hampshire. Fifty seats have already changed hands, from Republicans to Democrats, since President Trump took office. Make no mistake: The Democrats are unified.”

On Tuesday, they faced three more tests in districts that were reliably red until last year. While Democrats won the Florida race between Buchanan, a Tampa Bay-area real estate agent, and Good, an attorney, Republican candidates won easily in Georgia and Oklahoma. But both parties were more focused on Florida, where Good’s victory represented a nearly 12-point swing from Donald Trump’s winning margin in the district.

“People deserve better and want to have better and still have hope that there’s going to be something better than our current administration,” Good said at her victory party here Tuesday.

The Washington Post's Michael Scherer dives into the challenges facing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and how she's trying to win back the House. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Both parties are pumping money into low-turnout races; both freely admit that they are becoming referendums on the president. The risks in Florida were clear long before the results came in.

“This is going to set the tone for 2018, and I’m telling you, it’s going to come down to a few hundred votes, if that,” said Buchanan, shaking hands after Sunday’s rally. “You can’t become complacent. It’s important that we get a win here.”

Buchanan, whose father, Vern Buchanan, has represented the area in Congress since 2007, was acutely aware of what had happened in other states. Lewandowski had slightly overstated it; since January 2017, Democrats had flipped 35 seats from red to blue, while Republicans had flipped four seats in the other direction.

Oklahoma Democrats are doing something unusual: Winning

Some national Republicans say the trend is overrated. “Twenty of the 35 special election wins for the Democrats since 2016 were in districts won by Hillary Clinton,” said David James, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee. “Liberal groups have been outspending Republicans on an average of 3 to 1, just to win back seats they should have never lost.”

But for years, Democrats had been spending little, and losing more — nearly 1,000 state legislative seats, many gerrymandered further out of reach after the party was routed in 2010. Starting last year, they’ve seen money and volunteers flood the sort of local races where the party had been wiped out during Barack Obama’s presidency. In many of the races they’ve lost, they’ve erased most of Republicans’ margins, often with the same pattern — strong Democratic turnout in suburbs and a Republican fade in rural voting. In an average of legislative races, Democrats have seen a 11.9 percent swing since 2016 results.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, helmed by former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., has reportedly raised $16 million toward a goal of flipping statehouses ahead of 2020. On Monday in Minnesota, Democrats held a state Senate seat and shrank the Republican margin in a state House election. The NDRC had plunked down $40,000 there, and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee had spent close to $130,000. In Florida, the rumors of national Democratic meddling were resonating with Republicans.

“If George Soros came down to Sarasota, I don’t think he’d make it out in one piece,” said Don Baldauf, a Republican activist who attended the Sunday rally, referring to the wealthy Democratic donor.

Holder’s group has stayed out of the Florida race, but the DLCC took an early interest in a contest that could be a model for its 2018 ambitions. The 72nd District, covering much of Sarasota County, gave Trump a small five-point victory; countywide, Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 12,000 votes.

But the prosperous, growing Sarasota area looks like the parts of the country where Democrats have gained ground. In 2017, Democrats flipped a state Senate seat in a part of Miami that had been trending blue; Good, who was already running in Sarasota, felt an immediate boost. The DLCC’s regional field director, Michael McCall, and the group’s national field director, Graham Wilson, pivoted to help the Good campaign boost turnout in a district with no recent record of electing Democrats.

In an interview, Buchanan conceded that Good had probably won the early vote, which ended Saturday. Joe Gruters, the longtime Republican chairman in Sarasota County, said that Democrats had piled in to flip the district while underestimating the GOP’s ability to push back.

“They’ve airdropped 50 guys and gals in this district to do get-out-the-vote, so if we beat them here, then they should be ashamed of themselves,” Gruters said. “From a national standpoint, the end is here for the Democrats. Some people are afraid of affiliating with Donald Trump right now. We believe that Donald Trump is going to lead our people to victory, both on Tuesday and in November.”

Neither side is coy about the national implications. A piece of direct mail from Leadership for Florida’s Future, a pro-Buchanan PAC, warned that “Margaret Good and her liberal pal Nancy Pelosi want to expand Obamacare in Florida.” A competing piece of mail from Good’s campaign told voters that “she’s running to fight for our progressive values and stop Donald Trump.”

On Monday, as Good knocked on doors, the anti-Trump message seemed to be sticking. Laura Morris, a doctor and former Republican who volunteered for Good’s campaign, said that the president’s defense of disgraced ex-staffer Rob Porter, facing allegations of spousal abuse, had gotten her angry all over again.

“He is on the side of wife beaters, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he cheated on his current wife,” Morris said.

Good, who was encouraging die-hard Democrats to vote, said that she had focused on issues vital in Sarasota — environment crises that the state government seemed to ignore, education, and the need to expand Medicaid. But she thought Trump’s response to the Porter case also was moving votes.

“It was part of the culture of misogyny that this White House is perpetrating,” Good said. “I won’t stand for it, and I don’t think the people of Sarasota will, either.”

Norman Robertson, who stopped to talk to Good on his way out of the polls, said that he’d reluctantly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because Trump was “a terrifying individual.” As an independent, he was surprised by the “stacks” of negative mail he got about Good, which he’d decided to ignore after hearing friends talk her up as a candidate.

“They were probably for my wife; she’s a Republican,” he said. “She’s going to vote later, but she’s voting for Good.”

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