An upcoming special election for a House seat in Central Florida could be a major test for whether state Democrats can bounce back from the drubbing they took last year.
The party is hoping to build on the Jacksonville mayoral election in May, when focusing on one race in terms of money and attention led to an upset victory.
“It’d be an important morale boost to kind of piggyback off Jacksonville, and it gives you momentum,” said Jason Isbell, a Democratic elections analyst who runs the MCIMaps website. “But if they lose it, and they lose it by a decent amount, then it’s going to be a big problem.”
Looming over everything, however, is that Gov. Ron DeSantis has still not set a date for the election. And time is running out to get a winner seated when the session starts in January.
The vacancy in District 35 was triggered when state Rep. Fred Hawkins, R-St. Cloud, resigned 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 DeSantis ally who sponsored the state takeover of Disney World’s Reedy Creek Improvement District.
Hawkins’ district was redrawn in 2022 to take in more Democratic parts of Orange County along with Republican areas of Osceola. Just like other suburban districts in Central Florida, an analysis of the district showed that voters there would have voted for President Joe Biden by about 4 points in 2020.
“[It] should have been one of the lower-hanging fruits [for Democrats] last cycle,” Isbell said.
But a red wave led by DeSantis’ landslide reelection led to a GOP sweep of all those Central Florida swing districts. Hawkins won by 11 percentage points over Democrat Rishi Bagga.
The special election could reveal whether Democrats can win those types of swing seats without DeSantis on the ballot, or whether turnout will continue to plague them as it did in 2022.
“I definitely think it’s a pretty important bellwether,” Isbell said. “Democrats, at least in theory, can win all of those … And [District] 35 definitely needs to be the first domino.”
But, he added, “First things first, the party has to get people to show up at all.”
Nikki Fried, who was elected state Democratic chair earlier this year, acknowledges the party “collapsed in November of 2022.”
“We had over a million Democrats that didn’t show up that had previously shown up in a gubernatorial election cycle,” she said. “… It’s caused us to lose a lot of seats that are purple and even blue. That won’t happen again.”
She said state Democrats would recreate what worked in the Jacksonville race.
“The party apparatus at the local level, the state level, and the national level are all leaning in to make sure that we are victorious with the seat,” Fried said.
The Republican Party of Florida did not respond to a request for comment.
Such an investment from the Florida Democrats would be welcomed by Bagga, who has filed to run for the seat again.
“Last year, I received absolutely no money from the state party,” Bagga said. “And that was just a reflection of how little money the party had. … For those of us who are down-ballot, it was tough, because we were left on our own.”
Republicans flooded the race with ads and mailers, many of which featured darkened, black-and-white images of Bagga calling him a “radical.”
“Look, I have a different name,” Bagga said. “I would, if elected, be the first Indian-American or South Asian-American ever elected to the Legislature. I think certainly people do have questions. Who is this guy? Where is he coming from? And it’s a little easier to capitalize on that when you’ve got unlimited money you can throw against somebody.”
Some of the mailers claimed Bagga wanted non-citizens to vote. “It’s scary to think what would happen if we allowed foreign nationals to vote in Florida’s elections,” one ad stated.
The origin of that false claim, Bagga said, was a letter to the editor he wrote to the Orlando Sentinel while in high school about being a green card holder who couldn’t wait to vote one day.
“I’ve got to tell you, I never thought when I was a captain on the debate team that what I wrote then would haunt me 23 years later, but here we are,” Bagga said.
Fried said the state party needs to do more to call out “this clearly racial profiling that the Republican Party does, trying to manipulate photos and the actual messages from our candidates.”
This time around, Bagga said he’s raised more in his first month in the race than any similar period last year, taking in more than $26,000.
“I think it does reflect that people are excited about this race,” he said. “And if we can demonstrate a win here if we can show that we’re able to win in a district like this … all of that will help in 2024.”
Bagga is one of five candidates running, including two Democrats and three Republicans.
On the GOP side, the names include Ken Davenport, a flight attendant and former probation officer who ran against Hawkins in the 2022 primary, Osceola School Board member Erika Booth, and Scotty Moore, the unsuccessful opponent to Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto last year.
Moore, who has raised $77,000, said Republicans were still the favorites despite the district’s Democratic lean.
“The bottom line is this is still a conservative state, and it’s still a conservative area,” Moore said. “People care about their families, people care about protecting our kids. And this is something that crosses party lines. … That’s where Florida has been going. That’s where Florida is going. And that’s what people want.”
Davenport and Booth did not return requests for comment.
So far, Bagga’s only opponent in the Democratic primary is Tom Keen, a former Orlando City Council candidate who has served on Orlando’s Citizens’ Police Review Board and Veteran Advisory Council. He had raised $2,817 as of June.
Keen, who lost to Bagga by 47 votes in the 2022 primary, said there were “any number of issues that have gotten folks basically fired up. If you look at abortion access, if you look at book bans, if you look at ‘don’t say gay,’ if you look at homeowners insurance, all of those issues point to Democrats wanting to take the seat.”
Just when the election will happen, though, was still up in the air.
In 2021, Democrats had to sue before DeSantis set the special primary election for three South Florida seats formerly held by Democrats. But the primary was scheduled for January 2022, shortly after that year’s legislative session began, and the general election wasn’t until March, just three days before the session ended.
For District 35 this year, Orange County elections supervisor Bill Cowles had recommended to the state that the primary be held Aug. 22 and the general election on Nov. 7, the same day as the Orlando city election, but those dates are increasingly unlikely.
“At this point, it’s just whatever the state comes up with as the dates,” Cowles said. “We’re at the mercy of whatever they give us.”
Candidates also said they were frustrated by the delay in calling a new election.
“The governor needs to step up and do his job,” Keen said. … We’re rapidly approaching the point where if we don’t get a special election pretty soon, the representative will not be sitting when the session starts in January. And that’s just wrong.”
Moore echoed the sentiment from the GOP side.
“There’s no reason to drag this out any longer,” Moore said. “Gov. DeSantis can absolutely call for a special election at any time. … Let’s get on with it.”
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.