Florida Democrat: I can lift Biden and flip state Senate. Why won’t my party help?

Democrats, however, face a deep fundraising deficit in the race for Senate District 20.
Danny Burgess and Kathy Lewis were the only two candidates to qualify for the special election for state Sen. Tom Lee's seat.
Danny Burgess and Kathy Lewis were the only two candidates to qualify for the special election for state Sen. Tom Lee's seat. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 28, 2020|Updated Aug. 28, 2020

TALLAHASSEE ― About 180,000 Americans have died during a pandemic. Unemployment hovers above double digits. The incumbent president’s approval ratings are 12 points underwater.

In any other election cycle, Florida’s Senate District 20 might be in play for Democrats, the party challenging for a seat long held by Republicans. President Donald Trump won the district, which covers parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk Counties, by eight points in 2016. That’s a substantial margin, but in what many are calling a Democratic-leaning year, not an overwhelming one.

And yet, Kathy Lewis, the Democrat running for the open seat, said she feels her party could be doing more to support her.

Her logic is simple: she’s a Black woman running in the Interstate-4 corridor of the country’s largest swing state. She represents a crucial Democratic constituency in a crucial part of the national electoral map.

“If we drive our race, we drive Biden,” Lewis said. “Not helping us to the fullest extent potentially hurts Biden.”

One of the state’s legislative bodies also hangs in the balance. Republicans currently hold a 23-to-17 advantage in the Senate. If Democrats flip three seats, the party could share power with Republicans in the chamber. For the first time in decades, Democrats could help set the legislative agenda in Tallahassee.

Statewide politicos expect the toughest state Senate races to be District 3, in north Florida; District 9, just northeast of Orlando; and the south Florida districts 37 and 39. Democrats might have to spend millions to flip districts 9 and 39, and potentially millions more to hold 3 and 37.

Senate District 20 may be the next most competitive race. Although its urban areas include parts of New Tampa near the University of South Florida, the district also covers a vast swath of rural and increasingly suburban area, such as Plant City in eastern Hillsborough, parts of Polk County, and much of Pasco, including Zephyrhills and Dade City. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district by about 3,000 registered voters.

After former gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink declined the party’s attempts to get her to run for the seat, Lewis decided to take her second run at the post. In 2018, the Johns Hopkins University-educated disability rights advocate lost by seven points to Sen. Tom Lee, the well-funded Republican incumbent. For every dollar Lewis raised in that race, Lee took in about $13.

Lee’s abrupt retirement from the Senate earlier this year opened the seat once again for a special election. State senators can serve up to two consecutive four-year terms.

Lewis’ opponent in the race this time around, Republican Danny Burgess, is also far surpassing the Democrat in fundraising. After just about three months in the race, Burgess, the former executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, has raised almost $234,000 — including $9,500 from the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Lewis has pulled in just about $37,000 — including zilch from the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

“(Burgess) has the full force of the party on his side,” Lewis told the Times/Herald. “There’s clearly a complete difference on the Democrat side, for whatever their reasons are.”

This year, the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee has raised over $7.1 million. The Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee has pulled in just a fraction of that: $1.9 million or so.

Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who will likely be the next Senate president, said District 20 has been favorable for Republicans over the years because candidates have worked hard to advocate for constituents’ interests.

“We feel good, but we don’t take anything for granted,” Simpson said. “Rep. Burgess will work very hard to make sure his constituents want to vote for him for the right reasons.”

Democrat officials say they plan to support Lewis through November, but it’s unclear how the financially strapped party will do so.

“Kathy Lewis is a fantastic candidate who would be an incredible representative of her community in the Florida Senate,” said Anders Croy, a spokesman for the Democrats’ Senate Victory effort. “We are continuing to monitor her race as we move toward election day.”

Spending heavily in a relative long shot district may not be sound strategy. But all summer, Democrats have said their recruiting efforts across the state will help Joe Biden turn the state blue in November.

“Politics is driven from the bottom up,” Terrie Rizzo, the chair of the Florida Democratic Party, said in June. “Having a local candidate running talking about local issues, talking about how the issues affect local issues, helps drives turnout.”

Democrats are running in 140 of 141 legislative races this cycle, with a 141st candidate fighting in court to get on the ballot.

Lewis said the party should follow its own logic: If Democrats want to help Biden, they should help her.

‘I don’t think about winning or losing, I think about telling the story and carving the way in the forest,” Lewis said. “I’m trying to over-perform so that Biden can get there.”

Fergie Reid, Jr. said his progressive activism organization,, helped recruit dozens of candidates this election cycle in Florida state House and Senate races. To Reid, Senate District 20 is an example of how the party’s recruitment efforts could go to waste if the candidates aren’t supported.

And the activist said in 2020, with systemic racism at the front of many voters’ minds, it’s incumbent on Democrats to invest in Black women.

“They’re not investing in Senate 20 the way they’re investing in Senate 9 and 39,” Reid said. “That may or may not have something to do with the candidate being Kathy Lewis. I think it does, and I don’t think it’s a good look for the party.”