Democrat wins state House seat in Trump-friendly Sarasota

Margaret Good trounces James Buchanan, the son of a GOP congressman, in a special election.
Margaret Good. (Via Facebook)
Margaret Good. (Via Facebook)
Published Feb. 14, 2018|Updated Feb. 14, 2018

A small swath of southwest Florida captured the attention of the country Tuesday night as Democrats and Republicans battled over a lowly state House seat in a symbolic struggle over the country's political future.

By night's end, Democrat Margaret Good had waltzed into Trump territory and trounced James Buchanan, the son of a GOP congressman, to take the special election for Florida's House District 72. But the ballot might as well have read Republicans vs. the Blue Wave.

Despite the low literal stakes of the election — a nine-month term in a chamber of the Florida Legislature where Republicans hold a near super-majority — Republicans and Democrats treated the Sarasota district like a proxy for the midterm congressional elections. Democratic donors from as far away as California cut checks to Good, an attorney, and former Vice President Joe Biden recorded a robocall for her. For the Republicans, Gov. Rick Scott helped, and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski parachuted into the Gulf Coast Sunday to lead a Republican rally.

The results, the latest in a minority party surge that has seen the party swing dozens of legislative seats across the country since Trump stunned Democrats in 2016, have the minority party riding high about their prospects heading into November.

"This win shows us that Floridians are rejecting the same tired rhetoric we saw with Donald Trump's campaign, which was the same rhetoric Buchanan used to try and win," the Florida Democratic Party said in a statement Tuesday night. "This is a referendum on Trump and the GOP."

Florida Republicans, forced to defend the seat Tuesday after Republican Rep. Alex Miller suddenly resigned last year, were prepared for Tuesday's loss and were dismissive of the significance of the results, which saw Good beat Buchanan by a 52 – 45 margin. The party is, after all, still 3-1 in special House elections over the last year.

"It's amazing what low expectations can do," said Jose Felix Diaz, a former GOP state representative who in September lost to Democrat Annette Taddeo in a special election for a left-leaning Miami Senate seat.

Though the GOP held a significant clear advantage in voter registration, Democrats have won in the district before. Good was also probably aided at least a little by the presence of a Libertarian candidate on the ballot more likely to siphon votes from the right than the left.

"There's a legitimate feeling on the side of the Democrats that they have an opportunity, that midterm elections generally provide an opportunity to the minority party. They also feel the polarization in the country, that they can capitalize on that," Republican State Rep. Jose Oliva, who as incoming Florida House Speaker coordinates the party's House campaigns, said Monday night. "So far in Republican House seats in these special (elections), that hasn't been the case. I think we'll do fine for the general in November."

On Twitter, Republican consultant Anthony Pedicini referred to the election as a Republican "revolt" against the Republican mantra, as opposed to a wave in favor of Good.

Even so, it's a race that, on paper, Republicans should have won. They outnumber registered Democrats by more than 10,000 in the district, and supported Trump — whom area Republicans have twice named "statesman of the year" — over Hillary Clinton by nearly five points. And they kept up during an early and absentee voting period that saw an unnaturally high turnout for a special election, besting Democrats as a party by nearly 200 votes.

But unlike the presidential election, the Democrat came out on top Tuesday. Good will now head to Tallahassee to finish out the legislative session in a seat that should have been occupied by a Republican, and the party will head on to the next election.

"There were people who voted for Margaret Good who voted for Donald Trump (two years ago). There's a lot of swing voters in this district," said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran Barack Obama's 2008 campaign in Florida. "If this was a race where she won because Democrats outnumbered Republicans, that would be one thing. She's going to win by 7 or 8 points despite the fact that 2,000 more Republicans voted than Democrats."

Democrats saw Tuesday's special election — along with three others across the country Monday and Tuesday — as part of a trend in which state races have been going their way. After a prolonged losing streak the last eight years, Democrats have suddenly picked up 35 seats nationally over the last 14 months.

To push Good over the top, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee dropped $20,000 into the race and sent its region and national strategists into the sleepy Gulf Coast community to help coordinate volunteers and resources. A DLCC spokeswoman said they deployed their game plan from Miami's Senate District 40.

The result: a remarkably high 36 percent voter turnout in a typically low-yield special election, and another victory.

"I want to thank everyone who supported this campaign. It would not have been possible without the thousands of individuals, who like me, have had enough of the divisiveness that permeates Tallahassee and gave of their time, money and talent," Good said in a statement Tuesday night. "The voters have spoken."