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Voting begins Saturday in a South Florida election in which a relative handful of voters will decide who goes to Congress — perhaps for decades.
The contest in the 20th Congressional District is attracting far, far less attention, both locally and nationally, than blistering-hot special congressional elections earlier in 2021. Candidates, strategists and elected officials all agree: It’s a virtual certainty that turnout in the South Florida voting will be exceedingly low.
The low turnout could mean that the winner emerges so politically vulnerable that they will face a major challenge in 2022 just months after taking office. Or the winner could serve in office for decades.
20th Congressional District
The 20th District, stretching from Miramar in southwest Broward to Riviera Beach in northeastern Palm Beach County, encompasses most of the African American and Caribbean American communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties. It takes in all or parts of Belle Glade, Cloud Lake, Fort Lauderdale, Glen Ridge, Haverhill, Lake Park, Lauderdale Lakes, Lauderhill, Loxahatchee Groves, Mangonia Park, Miramar, North Lauderdale, Oakland Park, Pahokee, Palm Beach Gardens, Parkland, Plantation, Pompano Beach, Riviera Beach, Royal Palm Beach, South Bay, Sunrise, Tamarac, West Palm Beach, Wellington and Weston.
The partisan voting index from the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the district as D plus 28, which means it performed 28 points more Democratic than the nation during the past two presidential contests. Only one in eight registered voters is a Republican.
The bottom line: The voters are so Democratic that the winner of the party primary on Nov. 2 is all-but-guaranteed to become the next member of Congress in the Jan. 11 election, filling the vacancy created by the April 6 death of Congressman Alcee Hastings.
Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess.
“Special elections are always tricky,” said Hazelle Rogers, mayor of Lauderdale Lakes and a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, lamenting that “the voters do not respond.”
Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam also expects anemic turnout. “There does not,” he observed, “appear to be a lot of excitement about the race.”
“There are several formidable candidates,” Messam said, but no sure winner.
Messam, who said he hasn’t endorsed in the race, and Rogers, who is supporting Dale Holness, said the nature of the district combined with a low-turnout special election, mean any one of several candidates could win.
A total of 11 names are on the ballot in the Democratic primary, but the contest is widely seen as divided into two groups. One has candidates who strategists and party activists see having a path to victory. The other group includes candidates without obvious ways to win the primary.
The Broward County Presidents’ Council of Democratic Clubs & Caucuses applied four criteria to assess which candidates were realistically viable when it was deciding which candidates to invite to online forums last month. (To make the cut, candidates had to have voted in the last two elections, have at least 100 donors to their campaigns, provided some funding to their own campaigns, had at least $25,000 in their campaign treasuries).
Those six candidates are Holness and Barbara Sharief, both currently Broward County commissioners; Bobby DuBose and Omari Hardy, both currently members of the Florida state House of Representatives; Perry Thurston, a state senator, and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, the CEO of a health care company, who has put at least $2.3 million of her own money into the campaign.
Candidates are advertising on TV online and through the mail. They’re knocking on doors and have teams reaching out to voters. And they’re participating in many video forums — more than 50, one candidate said — which are sometimes unwieldy when nine or 10 candidates each get a turn for each question.
Major national groups have largely taken a pass on the South Florida contest.
And the candidates are on broad agreement on most big economic and social issues, such as federal action to protect voting rights and abortion rights. The candidates also want immigration reform and much better treatment of Haitian nationals seeking asylum in the U.S, and most have expressed frustration with the Biden Administration and Congress for failing to implement major changes in Trump-era immigration policies.
The winner will be the candidate who can get supporters to actually turn out and vote. “It’s going to depend on who has the strongest, most committed base,” said Easton Harrison, a vice president of the Democratic Black Caucus of Florida. He’s not working for any candidate.
The candidates are counting on particular pockets of community support, such as geography or philosophy, where they may be especially strong. “You’ve got to know your base, and they’ve got to come out for you,” Rogers said.
- Holness, for example, is Jamaican American and has many supporters in the Caribbean community. DuBose and Thurston have both won multiple elections and have bases of support in the African American community in Fort Lauderdale.
- Several candidates tout their ties to Palm Beach County, home to about a quarter of the district’s Democratic voters, but Hardy is the only one of the leading candidates who lives and serves in elected office there. The rest are from Broward.
- Holness is billing himself as the true heir to Hastings, who served 28 years before his death. Other candidates, including Thurston and Dowling, had ties to Hastings stretching back decades, and reject the idea that Holness is the best to take up the late congressman’s torch.
- Part of the challenge of this race is nobody really knows who’s going to be voting,” said Stephen Gaskill, a political communications consultant and president of the Florida LGBTQ+ Democratic Caucus.
Writing on Facebook, Broward Democratic activist Corey Shearer implored voters in the Black community to participate in the election. “Black Broward all genders, shades, religions, and backgrounds, we are asking our brothers and sisters to please VOTE our power in Congressional District 20,” Shearer said.
With a low turnout and so many candidates, someone could win a very low number of votes. A 20% voter turnout, around 56,000 votes, means someone could win with 10,000 votes.
Political strategists said it’s possible that the top finisher could have 20% of the vote — or less. Florida hasn’t had runoff primaries since 2000, so the first-place finisher wins.
That leaves open questions: If the first-place candidate has 19% and one or two others finish a point or two behind, will they run again in 2022? Will others be tempted to run, seeing an incumbent without a large base?
Profile: 20th Congressional District
There are 459,780 registered voters in the District.
Of those, 62% are Democrats, 25% independent/no party affiliation, and 13% Republican.
President Joe Biden won 79.8% of the 2020 presidential vote in the district. In 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton received 79.8%.
Broward is home to 71% of the voters; Palm Beach County 29%. (The Broward part of the district is about 10 percentage points more Democratic than the Palm Beach County portion.)
Under mid-1980s revisions to the federal Voting Rights Act, the boundaries were drawn to create a district that increases the chance that someone from a minority group can win the election and bring a voice that wouldn’t be otherwise heard to the halls of Congress. That helped the late U.S. Rep. Hastings win his first election, in 1992.
The district includes all or parts of Belle Glade, Cloud Lake, Fort Lauderdale, Glen Ridge, Haverhill, Lake Park, Lauderdale Lakes, Lauderhill, Loxahatchee Groves, Mangonia Park, Miramar, North Lauderdale, Oakland Park, Pahokee, Palm Beach Gardens, Parkland, Plantation, Pompano Beach, Riviera Beach, Royal Palm Beach, South Bay, Sunrise, Tamarac, West Palm Beach, Wellington and Weston.
20th Congressional District primary candidates
Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, who unsuccessfully challenged Hastings in the 2018 and 2020 primaries. She is a lawyer and CEO of a home health care company.
Elvin Dowling, a reverend, author, marketing and branding consultant and executive, former chief of staff at the National Urban League, former staffer for the late U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings.
State Rep. Bobby DuBose of Broward County, a former Fort Lauderdale city commissioner and current co-Democratic Party leader in the Florida House. Insurance adjuster.
State Rep. Omari Hardy of Palm Beach County, a former Lake Worth Beach city commissioner. Director of education at Housing Center of Palm Beaches, former classroom teacher.
Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness, who has served one term as county mayor and is a former Lauderhill city commissioner. Works in real estate.
Phil Jackson, retired Navy chief petty officer. He ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for Congress in 1986.
Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief, who has served two terms as county mayor and is a former Miramar city commissioner. A nurse who holds a doctorate of nursing practice, she founded a pediatric home health care company.
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Imran Uddin Siddiqui, Broward County physician.
Former Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor, a former state representative, and unsuccessful 2019 candidate for mayor of West Palm Beach.
State Sen. Perry Thurston of Broward, a former state representative and former Democratic leader in the Florida House, and unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 2014. Lawyer and assistant public defender.
Jason Mariner, who served time in prison for drug and theft violations he said stemmed from an injury that led to an addition to prescription drugs. He has since founded an advertising business.
Greg Musselwhite, who was the Republican candidate against Hastings in 2020, is a pipefitter, welder and welding inspector.