Florida Republicans win recount, flip key Senate seat in Miami

José Javier loss is a stunning blow to Senate Democrats, who went into the election cycle hoping to flip three seats to reach parity in the chamber and ended up losing one seat
Chair of the Miami-Dade Democrats and lawyer Steve Simeonidis looks closely at a ballot during a manual recount for Senate District 37 between Republican Ileana Garcia and Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez at the Miami-Dade Elections Department on Thursday, November 12, 2020, in Miami, Florida.
Chair of the Miami-Dade Democrats and lawyer Steve Simeonidis looks closely at a ballot during a manual recount for Senate District 37 between Republican Ileana Garcia and Democrat Jose Javier Rodriguez at the Miami-Dade Elections Department on Thursday, November 12, 2020, in Miami, Florida. [ DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald ]
Published Nov. 13, 2020|Updated Nov. 13, 2020

After three long days of a painstaking recount, early results on Thursday showed Latinas for Trump co-founder Ileana Garcia leading Democratic incumbent José Javier Rodríguez in the race for Senate District 37 by a mere 34 votes.

In a video posted shortly after the recount was done, Rodríguez conceded and called for an investigation into the race, raising concerns about the influence of a third-party candidate backed by dark money who received more than 6,300 votes in an election decided by a few dozen out of more than 215,000.

“Democracy requires transparency,” he said in the video. “In order to achieve that, I believe this election requires a full investigation so that those who may have violated the law are held to account and so that such tactics are not used in future elections.”

Rodríguez’s loss is a stunning blow to Senate Democrats, who went into the election cycle hoping to flip three seats to reach parity in the chamber and ended up losing one seat, a balance that will make it tougher for them to influence the GOP’s legislative agenda in the near future.

Democrats say the loss is an indictment of Florida’s weak campaign finance laws that allow a shadow candidate and half a million dollars in dark money to infiltrate the race, siphoning votes all while technically following the rules.

“Our election laws are just not strong enough,” incoming Senate minority leader Gary Farmer said Thursday.

Republicans, however, said Rodríguez’s loss should be added to the “litany of introspection Florida Democrats need to explore in the coming months” in the wake of stinging defeats this November, including the loss of five seats in the Florida House.

The results will be certified by Secretary of State Laurel Lee on Friday, which is the deadline for military and overseas ballots to be counted.

A legislative tug-of-war

In 2016, Rodríguez unseated three-term Republican Sen. Miguel Díaz de la Portilla, a member of Miami-Dade’s powerful Cuban-American political family, with a three-point advantage. His victory in the redrawn seat was made possible, in large part, to the heavy backing from the party and wealthy donors and President Donald Trump’s poor showing in Miami-Dade County.

At the time, Senate Republican leaders blamed Díaz de la Portilla’s defeat on the unpopularity of Trump in the county, which he lost to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by about 30 percentage points.

Trump is once again linked to the outcome of the race, but for the exact opposite reasons.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s poor showing in Miami-Dade allowed Trump to cut into his 2016 margin by more than 20 points. Biden’s lackluster performance let Trump make gains in Senate District 37 and opened the door for Garcia’s victory in the Hispanic-majority district.

Protecting Rodríguez’s seat was always a top priority for Senate Democrats, who wanted to improve their chances of gaining ground in Tallahassee.

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The Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Republican Senators, ended up outworking Senate Democrats. It ramped up efforts ahead of the election, and spent $137,260 in October on polling, consulting, research, staff and phone banking to help Garcia’s candidacy, according to campaign finance records.

At the same time, the district swung 9.2 percent in Trump’s favor, with the support of Cuban Americans and non-Cuban Hispanics. Biden still defeated Trump in the district but by a much smaller margin than Clinton did.

No-party candidate is a factor

Much mystery remains around the network of unknown candidates with no party affiliation (NPA) who ran in three competitive Senate districts, most notably in Senate District 37, where the third-party candidate netted more than 6,300 votes and likely influenced the outcome.

Voters in Senate Districts 9, 37 and 39 were targeted by similar-looking political mail ads funded by a mystery donor that aimed to confuse voters in an apparent effort to shave votes from Democratic candidates.

The mailers included messaging on issues that historically appeal to Democrats, and advertised the little-known candidates who did not actively campaign. The ads urged voters to “cut the strings” from party-backed candidates and to vote for third-party candidates.

In Senate District 37, Alex Rodriguez, who shares a surname with the Democrat incumbent, was promoted in dark money mailers as a candidate who would “fight climate change,” “hold the police accountable” and “guarantee a living wage.” He received about 3 percent of the vote.

Third-party or write-in candidates ran in eight of the 20 state Senate races. On average, those candidates got about 2 percent of the vote, making the vote count toward Alex Rodriguez well above average.

Both Rodríguez and Celso Alfonso, the no-party candidate who ran in District 39, were registered Republicans when they voted in the 2018 midterm elections. Both qualified as candidates the same day, with checks hand-delivered in Tallahassee and time-stamped within minutes of one another.

Both candidates' email addresses are Gmail accounts with identical patterns: first initial, last name, district number and “2020.” They also have identical campaign finance records, both only reporting $2,000 loans to themselves, and used the money to pay for the $1,187.88 filing fee required of no-party candidates for state Senate.

A WPLG Local 10 report found that Alex Rodriguez did not live at the address he listed in his campaign filings.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office, which prosecuted ex-lawmaker Daisy Baez for lying about her place of residency on her voter registration affidavit, said they were aware of the report. However, they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an ongoing investigation, citing agency policy.

Rodríguez has blamed Senate Republican leaders for planting the third-party candidate in the race, saying “Tallahassee Republicans ran one unethical campaign with two candidates,” referring to Garcia and Alex Rodriguez.

Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee and incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, specifically said that the committee and Simpson were not involved in Alex Rodriguez’s campaign, candidacy or mailers.

Much mystery remains about the donor who paid for the mailers. The donor, Proclivity, had never made political contributions in Florida until early October and has no paper trail, according to business and tax records reviewed by the Times/Herald.

The donor poured $550,000 into two new political committees — Our Florida PC and The Truth PC — which quickly used the money to buy what is believed to be hundreds of thousands of mailed political advertisements in support of the no-party candidates.

The committees' only registered agents are Sierra Olive and Hailey DeFilippis, two young women with no known political experience. Both women are from the Tampa Bay area, Olive from Palm Harbor and DeFilippis from Dunedin.

Olive, 24, and DeFilippis, 25, both registered Republicans, have failed to report campaign contributions and expenditures for the political committees as required by state law, and could face fines, according to a letter sent by the Florida Division of elections on Oct. 29. These letters serve as further indication that the committees were not actively engaged in campaign activity, other than to buy the mailers in early October.

The $550,000 spent by the committees flowed to a company called Advance Impression LLC, which was created in 2018 and is operated out of a private residence in Clermont, according to state business records.

The company has no working phone and it had never been paid to do political mailers by a candidate or political committee in Florida until The Truth PC and Our Florida PC popped up and made the payments, according to campaign finance records.

Additionally, The Truth PC listed its address as the address for the printing company in expenditure records for the mailers. It is unclear why the committee and the company share the same address, neither would respond to requests for comment.

A search of both Olive and DeFilippis' names and home addresses in campaign finance records showed no links to other campaign expenditures or contributions this election cycle. Attempts to reach both women by social media, email and phone calls have been unsuccessful.

The candidates

Ileana Garcia was relatively unknown in political circles until 2016, when she founded Latinas for Trump to counter antagonism against Hispanic supporters of President Trump. Before then, she was a television personality and self-described Sandra Bullock doppelgänger.

Shortly after Latinas for Trump got off the ground, the Trump campaign hired her as Trump’s communication director to do Latino outreach. Garcia then went on to work as deputy press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security under the Trump administration.

Ileana Garcia, founder of Latinas for Trump, conducts a TV interview in Coral Gables in 2016.
Ileana Garcia, founder of Latinas for Trump, conducts a TV interview in Coral Gables in 2016. [ ALEX DAUGHERTY | ]

According to her website, Garcia, who is Cuban-American was raised in Allapattah and is a single mother of one. Her Twitter was recently wiped and her Facebook deleted over the weekend. Before her Facebook was deleted, she prematurely changed the page’s name to “Senator Ileana Garcia.”

In August 2019 Garcia joined Parler, a social media site that touts “free expression without violence and no censorship” and displays posts that contain far-right content, anti-semitism and conspiracy theories. Her account is private.

Garcia, 50, never granted an interview to the Miami Herald before or after the election. Erin Issac, a spokeswoman for Senate Republican campaigns, stonewalled all attempts to reach her, and provided statements on her behalf that broadly addressed the issues she would prioritize if elected.

According to one statement, Garcia has a few broad legislative priorities. Those include the following, working with Democrats to “help end COVID,” fix the state’s unemployment system, improve the economy, increase funding for Miami-Dade’s public school and school choice options, and “work to make healthcare truly affordable by expanding access to quality healthcare.”

The statement added that she wanted to defeat Rodriguez because he had a “far-left agenda,” which she broadly characterized as one that would “expand the role of government, increase taxes and deny parents the opportunity to decide the best education for their children.”

While in the Legislature, Rodríguez pushed climate change legislation and often filed bills to protect tenants in foreclosure and reform condo law.

The League of Conservation voters, an environmental advocacy group that worked with Rodríguez on legislation and reliably backed his campaigns, called the loss “devastating.”

Rodríguez campaigned on promises to keep pushing for measures that address climate change, including how it impacts infrastructure and public health in the region. It was supposed to be a continuation of what he had been preaching since he was elected four years ago.

Rodríguez did not only talk about it — he wore it. For three legislative sessions in a row, he wore rubber boots with the slogan ActOnClimateFl to raise awareness about the threats climate change pose to the state.

During this year’s legislative session, Rodríguez achieved part of that slogan. Along with state Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, Rodríguez championed legislation that explicitly acknowledges climate change’s threats to the state and requires state-financed projects on the coast to take sea level rise into account before starting to build a structure.

DeSantis signed the bill into law in June, and it went into effect July 1.

“Not many people in the whole state understand climate change issues like Senator Rodríguez,” said Jonathan Webber, the deputy director of the League of Conservation Voters.

“Those are going to be some big galoshes to fill.”

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