By Alex Hayes
Editor, International Relations & Geography Undergraduate
Evidence of a shifting U.S. political landscape can be found in the outcomes of local elections in the state of Florida. An especially stunning outcome was announced on February 13th, when the Democratic candidate Margaret Good defeated Republican candidate James Buchanan in a special election for state representative in southwest Florida’s House District 72. Good’s victory marked the 36th GOP-held state legislative seat to change parties for the Democratic Party since President Donald Trump assumed the presidency last year. In order to understand why this election was significant, it is important to understand the context of District 72 in Florida.
This district comprises part of Sarasota, a suburban town located an hour’s drive south of Tampa. Republicans outnumber Democrats in the district by around 13,000 voters. This advantage for the Republicans was demonstrated when Alex Miller, a first-term representative who resigned the seat in August which led to this special election, won her 2016 race against Democrat Edward James by 16 points. The district also voted for Trump by 4.4 per cent in the 2016 presidential election.
These figures make Good’s margin of victory of more than 7 per cent over Buchanan all the more surprising, especially as recent polls suggested the race was a statistical dead heat. This result marked the third straight loss for the Republican party in Florida in elections seen as harbingers for the midterms later this year. The Democrats won a Miami-area state Senate special election last September and subsequently came out victorious in the St. Petersburg mayoral race in November.
Democratic gains have also occurred outside of Florida, as the party picked up major victories in a state house race in Missouri the previous week and in a Wisconsin Senate seat on the same day as the Florida special election. The Democrats are using these elections as test-runs for the crucial midterm elections this November. The national spotlight was placed on the Florida House District 72 election after Good was publicly backed by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley and former Vice President Joe Biden.
Meanwhile Buchanan managed to secure the support of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and deputy campaign manager David Bossie, who campaigned with the candidate in Sarasota. Bossie and Lewandowski spoke at a Buchanan rally where the Republican crowd could be heard chanting “Lock her up!”, a slogan commonly heard at Trump rallies in 2016. Trump’s rhetoric was utilised by Lewandowski in an attempt to energise the conservatives in the audience as he announced that “the fake news is going to watch you. The failing New York Times wants to write that James Buchanan lost the seat and that Donald Trump cannot carry a candidate anymore. You cannot allow it.” Buchanan’s campaign team believed that Republicans in Sarasota would be motivated to vote for the realtor by closely aligning with the controversial President.
Trump is still very popular among Republicans, as a recent Gallup poll indicates that he still holds an 86 per cent approval rating among Republicans nationwide. By latching onto the coattails of the president and employing a similar anti-immigrant and anti-media message, the Republicans had reason to believe that their advantage among registered Republicans in the district would carry them over the line.
However, Buchanan’s strategy of aligning with Trump ultimately backfired. While the president is still relatively popular among Republicans, he has failed to capture the support of the nation. Trump’s failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to stop the government shutdown, his controversial comments on topics ranging from NFL players protesting racial injustice to the mainstream media have contributed to Trump’s national unpopularity, as have his questionable Russia dealings that have led to a special investigation, and a reckless use Twitter to insult, mock, cajole, and ultimately pose a threat to national security. Trump’s approval rating averaged 38.4 per cent during his first year in office, which is more than 10 percentage points lower than any other elected president’s first-year average.
Buchanan focused on issues he believed would resonate to voters in District 72. Just as Trump has clamped down on immigration and taxes, so did the Republican candidate. In a promotional leaflet sent out to potential voters, Buchanan pledged to restrict refugees from settling in Florida and to lower taxes. Good, meanwhile, espoused a more progressive agenda centred on environmental protection, affordable healthcare, education and LGBTQ+ rights. Good’s surprising victory in a historically Republican district was aided by her superior fundraising efforts, which enabled her agenda to reach voters via advertising and a substantial get-out-the-vote-effort made possible by the kind of grassroots activism that characterised Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.
The Democrat also benefited from unexpectedly high Democratic turnout, particularly among women, and the fact that a large cohort of Republicans voted for her. These figures demonstrate that voters in Sarasota used this election as a means to protest Trump’s presidency. Buchanan’s alignment with Trump ultimately served to his detriment as even voters from his own party chose the Democrat in this election.
If Florida proves any indication, the President could be in for a rude awakening in 2018 if this year’s midterms follow the pattern of the special election for state representative in Florida’s House District 72.
Featured photos by Your Observer