Two hundred and eighty days after Rep. Alcee Hastings died from pancreatic cancer, voters in the late lawmaker’s deeply Democratic South Florida congressional district will finally pick a replacement.
Democrat Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick is the heavy favorite against Republican Jason Mariner in Tuesday’s special election for Florida’s 20th Congressional District, where President Joe Biden won 77% of the vote in 2020. As of Monday afternoon, about 37,000 Democrats had voted early or by mail, compared with 6,000 Republicans.
One of two Black-majority seats in the state, the district has been vacant since Hastings’ death last April, much to the ire of Florida Democrats, who accused Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of delaying the election to deprive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of critical votes in the narrowly divided chamber.
“This is nothing short of voter suppression tactics and political gamesmanship,” said Richard Hoye, chairman of the Broward County Democrats. Hoye said local Democrats remain confident they’ll prevail Tuesday, but they are expecting turnout to be low.
In May, when he announced the special election, DeSantis said he wanted to make sure candidates had enough time to mount a campaign.
” I know as someone who ran for (Congress), there’s a lot that goes into it,” DeSantis said at the time.
Cherfilus-McCormick shocked Democrats in South Florida when she emerged victorious – by the slimmest of margins – in a hotly contested and crowded primary for the seat in November. She defeated the Hastings family’s handpicked successor, Broward County Supervisor Dale Holness, by just five votes after a lengthy recount.
If elected, Cherfilus-McCormick would become the first Hatian American Democrat in Congress.
Cherfilus-McCormick, a businesswoman who had twice mounted primary challenges against Hastings, has pumped a staggering $5.9 million of her own money into the race. Mariner, meanwhile, had raised about $100,000 through mid-December, according to federal campaign finance reports.
The two candidates represent the ideological wings of their respective parties. Cherfilus-McCormick has campaigned on progressive policies like “Medicare for all” and the “People’s Prosperity Plan” to provide $1,000 monthly checks to Americans paid for with tax increases on the wealthy.
Cherfilus-McCormick told CNN that the pandemic has led to more people embracing the idea of a universal basic income.
“The election came after economic stimulus checks and after Covid arrived, and people realized that check, which went toward housing, food, electricity, bare necessities, that it actually gave them a break,” she said. “More people are believing in that safety net while we’re in the midst of economic instability.”
Mariner has criticized Cherfilus-McCormick’s idea as expensive and implausible. He is a supporter of former President Donald Trump and an “America First” Republican who lists election integrity and public safety among his top priorities on his campaign materials.
His website also promotes his turnaround story. Mariner “beat drug addiction,” the site says, to become a successful business owner. Mariner served time in prison after he was convicted of felony theft and drug charges, according to state Department of Corrections records.
Mariner said he had received positive feedback for turning his life around before he ran for Congress, but it has since been used against him in what has become an increasingly acrimonious campaign in recent weeks.
“The second I put an ‘R’ next to my name … I’m drawn and quartered, proverbially,” Mariner told CNN in an interview Monday. “I said to somebody the other day, ‘Take away the party affiliation and look at my work.’ “
Mariner handily won his party’s primary. His site lists endorsements from US Rep. Brian Mast, convicted Trump fixer Roger Stone and Laura Loomer, a failed congressional candidate and far-right provocateur banned by social media companies.
The winner on Tuesday will face reelection later this year, though the district boundaries are subject to change once Florida lawmakers finalize the new congressional maps. Holness has already filed to run for the seat again in the regularly scheduled August primary.