Once-sleepy state races heat up as Democrats score surprising wins

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 12:20 PM

David Weigel

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

SARASOTA, Florida -- GOP strategist Corey Lewandowski delivered a warning to Florida Republicans: James Buchanan was their candidate in a fast-approaching special state House election and Democrats could beat him.

“They’re winning elections in places where they shouldn’t be,” Lewandowski, former campaign manager to Donald Trump in 2016, said Sunday at a rally near Sarasota’s airfield. “We’ve seen them win state House seats in Wisconsin. We’ve seen them win big mayor’s races in New Hampshire. Fifty seats have already changed hands, from Republicans to Democrats, since President Trump took office. Make no mistake: The Democrats are unified.”

Nine months before the midterm elections, and with some polls finding a slight Republican recovery, some in Trump’s party are increasingly worried about local and special elections that have shown a persistent Democratic shift.

On Tuesday, they’ll face three more tests in districts that were reliably red until last year: one in rural Georgia, one in Oklahoma, and the Florida race between Buchanan, a Tampa Bay-area Realtor, and Democratic nominee Margaret Good, an attorney. Both parties are pumping money into low-turnout races; both freely admit that they are becoming referendums on the president.

“This is going to set the tone for 2018, and I’m telling you, it’s going to come down to a few hundred votes, if that,” said Buchanan, shaking hands after Sunday’s rally. “You can’t become complacent. It’s important that we get a win here.”

Buchanan, whose father, Vern, has represented the area in Congress since 2007, was acutely aware of what had happened in other states. Lewandowski had slightly overstated it; since January 2017, Democrats had flipped 35 seats from red to blue, while Republicans had flipped four seats in the other direction.

National Republicans say the trend is overrated. “Twenty of the 35 special election wins for the Democrats since 2016 were in districts won by Hillary Clinton,” said David James, a spokesman for the Republican State Leadership Committee. “Liberal groups have been outspending Republicans on an average of three to one, just to win back seats they should have never lost.”

But for years, Democrats had been spending little, and losing more -- nearly 1,000 state legislative seats, many gerrymandered farther out of reach after the 2010 rout. Starting last year, they’ve seen money and volunteers flood the sort of local races where the party had been wiped out during Barack Obama’s presidency. In many of the races they’ve lost, they’ve erased most of the Republicans’ margins, often with the same pattern -- strong Democratic turnout in suburbs, and a Republican fade in rural voting. In an average of legislative races, Democrats have seen a 11.9 percent swing since 2016 results.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, helmed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, has reportedly raised $16 million toward a goal of flipping state houses ahead of 2020. On Monday in Minnesota, Democrats held a state Senate seat and shrunk the Republican margin in a House seat; the NDRC had plunked down $40,000 there, and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee had spent close to $130,000. In Florida, the rumors of national Democratic meddling were resonating with Republicans.

“If George Soros came down to Sarasota, I don’t think he’d make it out in one piece,” said Don Baldauf, a Republican activist who attended the Sunday rally, referring to the wealthy Democratic donor.

Holder’s group has stayed out of the Florida race, but the DLCC took an early interest in a contest that could be a model for their 2018 ambitions. The 72nd district, covering much of Sarasota County, gave Trump a small 5-point victory; countywide, Republicans outnumber Democrats by around 12,000 votes.

But the prosperous, growing Sarasota area looks like the parts of the country where Democrats have gained ground. In 2017, Democrats flipped a state Senate seat in a part of Miami that had been trending blue; Good, who was already running in Sarasota, felt an immediate boost. The DLCC’s regional field director, Michael McCall, and the group’s national field director, Graham Wilson, pivoted to help the Good campaign on boosting turnout in a district with no recent record of electing Democrats.

In an interview, Buchanan conceded that Good had probably won the early vote, which ended Saturday. Joe Gruters, the longtime Republican chairman in Sarasota County, said that Democrats had piled in to flip the district while underestimating the GOP’s ability to push back.

“They’ve airdropped 50 guys and gals in this district to do get-out-the-vote, so if we beat them here, then they should be ashamed of themselves,” said Gruters. “From a national standpoint, the end is here for the Democrats. Some people are afraid of affiliating with Donald Trump right now; we believe that Donald Trump is going to lead our people to victory, both on Tuesday and in November.”

Neither side is coy about the national complications. A piece of direct mail from the pro-Buchanan PAC Leadership for Florida’s Future warns that “Margaret Good and her liberal pal Nancy Pelosi want to expand Obamacare in Florida.” A competing piece of mail from Good’s campaign tells voters that “she’s running to fight for our progressive values and stop Donald Trump.”

On Monday, as Good knocked on doors, the anti-Trump message seemed to be sticking. Laura Morris, a doctor and former Republican who volunteered for Good’s campaign, said that the president’s defense of disgraced ex-staffer Rob Porter, facing allegations of spousal abuse, had angered her all over again.

“He is on the side of wife beaters, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he cheated on his current wife,” Morris said.

Good, who was encouraging die-hard Democrats to vote, said that she had focused on issues vital in Sarasota -- environment crises that the state government seemed to ignore, education, and the need to expand Medicaid. But she thought that the president’s response to the Porter case also was moving votes.

“It was part of the culture of misogyny that this White House is perpetrating,” Good said. “I won’t stand for it, and I don’t think the people of Sarasota will, either.”

On Tuesday morning, when polls opened, both Buchanan and Good stopped by their home precinct -- they were neighbors, electorally speaking -- to meet last-minute voters. Thirty minutes into Election Day, just nine voters had gone to the polling booth.

“It’s going to come down to who turns out,” said Buchanan.

The first voters, however, went for the Democrat. Carl and Penny Morrison, retirees who said that they always voted Democratic, said they felt a new urgency so long as Trump was president.

“I don’t even know if there’ll be another election in three years,” said Carl Morrison. “If he rallies enough people with firearms, he can prevent people from voting and call himself leader forever.”

Jeff Robertson, who stopped to talk to Good on his way out of the polls, said that he’d reluctantly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 because Trump was “a terrifying individual.” As an independent, he was surprised by the “stacks” of negative mail he got about Good, which he’d decided to ignore after hearing friends talk her up as a candidate.

“They were probably for my wife; she’s a Republican,” he said. “She’s going to vote later, but she’s voting for Good.”

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