For the third Florida bellwether election in a row, the Republican candidate lost to the Democrat, giving activists and elites in both parties a sense that the GOP’s political grip is slipping in the nation’s largest swing state heading into President Donald Trump’s first midterm election.
Aside from her big 7.4 percentage-point win, what made Margaret Good’s victory Tuesday night over Republican James Buchanan so significant was that it took place in Florida’s 72nd House District. It had been held by a Republican in Sarasota County, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 12,000, or about 10 percentage points. Buchanan, the son of local Congressman Vern Buchanan, also had an advantage in name ID.
And Trump had carried the district by 4.6 percentage points in a state that he won by just 1.2 points in November.
But now Trump is too toxic even for Sarasota, say who made sure to figuratively hang the unpopular president around the neck of Buchanan as well as the Republicans who lost in the two other recent bellwether contests: Florida’s 40th Senate District in Miami-Dade and St. Petersburg’s mayoral race. Both of those elections had Democratic-leaning electorates with significant minority populations, unlike the 72nd in Sarasota.
In all of the races, Democrats made sure to use Vice President Joe Biden as a surrogate.
“This is beyond a trend. The results are in. Republicans have a real problem in this state,” said Tom Eldon, a Democratic pollster who surveyed the race.
“This is the bellwether seat,” Eldon said. “This seat in Sarasota is the Republicans’ backyard. Anytime Democrats win a seat like this it’s great for Democrats. It happened in 1992. It happened in 2006. And it happened in this seat. This is a bellwether for bad Republican years.”
And it’s not just in Florida. Good’s win was the 36th Republican legislative seat in the nation that a Democrat has won since 2016, a feat partly attributable to Trump’s toxicity and to the reinvigorated Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helped in Good’s race and the Florida Senate contest in Miami-Dade.
Though Democrats have seen successes throughout the nation, including Virginia’s governor’s race and Alabama’s U.S. Senate race, Eldon cautioned against extrapolating too much from those races.
In a state notorious for close election results, Democrats and Republicans alike said there’s only so much this race means heading into the November elections, when Floridians decide whether to keep Sen. Bill Nelson as they vote on open seats for governor, attorney general, agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer.
Republicans hope that the worst of Trump’s bad approval ratings are over and that Floridians will continue to see the state on the right track under Republicans. Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet are all Republican and the GOP controls the state Legislature as well. Scott’s approval rating is higher than ever and he’s widely expected to challenge Nelson.
For all of the contested Democratic victories, though, Republicans point out that there has been no overwhelming “blue wave.” Republicans came out to vote. But there was a catch. Many voted for Good in the district, which has a reputation as a bastion for environmentally conscious establishment Republicans with Midwest sensibilities.
“This was less a blue wave than a red revolt,” said Anthony Pedicini, a top Republican consultant for Buchanan. “Republicans turned out on Election Day, and looks like there was little benefit to our campaign.”
One Republican, who didn’t want to speak publicly against his party’s candidate, said earlier Tuesday that Democrats had another advantage in the Sarasota House seat: “Buchanan was a terrible candidate. And candidates matter.”
Republicans were also bitter that two of their candidates for governor, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Rep. Ron DeSantis, did little to help Buchanan. Meanwhile, the leading Democratic candidates for governor put aside their differences and pitched in for Good.
The only major national figure to help Buchanan: Trump’s former campaign manager, lobbyist Corey Lewandowski, who was kicked out of Trump’s inner circle before he even seized the GOP nomination for president in 2016.
Republicans fretted about the size of Good’s win in Sarasota. It was far larger than state Sen. Annette Taddeo’s win in Miami-Dade and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s victory. Republicans believed that Good was more of an outlier and noted that they won two other recent special elections for state House seats in the Orlando and Tampa areas, though Democrats didn’t contest them seriously.
And because Republicans dominate the levers of power in Florida, they have greater financial resources that can be brought to bear in statewide races and in the multiple contested legislative seats in November. Democrats acknowledge that they’ve been able to win these recent contested elections because they’re able to concentrate their limited fire on one race at a time.
Midterm elections have cursed Florida Democrats as well. Regardless of who’s in office, they’ve consistently lost them statewide for more than two decades. Nelson has been the lone exception.
But, Eldon said, there’s only so much happy talk Republicans can engage in. Eldon said he remembered how, in 2010 and 2014, Democrats were losing in special elections as a prelude to being crushed during the midterm general elections.
“Republicans were saying in 2010 what we’re saying now in special elections. We’re seeing the same thing,” Eldon said. “If Republicans can’t win in Sarasota, it says a lot about the party of Trump.”