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Race to pick Hastings successor in Florida is neck and neck

Businesswoman who lost two past primaries trails Broward commissioner

Democrats in Florida’s 20th District will have to wait a little longer to learn who won the party primary in the special election to succeed the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings.
Democrats in Florida’s 20th District will have to wait a little longer to learn who won the party primary in the special election to succeed the late Rep. Alcee L. Hastings. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Democratic primary to nominate a successor to the late Democrat Alcee L. Hastings in Florida was neck and neck Tuesday as a local elected official who said he had Hastings’ endorsement battled a self-funding CEO who tried twice before to oust Hastings. 

With The Associated Press reporting 100 percent of the vote counted, Broward County Commissioner Dale V.C. Holness was 31 votes — or one-tenth of a point — behind home health care CEO Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick. Each had less than 24 percent of the vote, with the remaining nine candidates splitting the rest. The AP reported shortly after 9 p.m. Eastern time that the race was too close to call.

Republicans, meanwhile, nominated advertising company owner Jason Mariner, who defeated 2020 GOP nominee Greg Musselwhite, 58 percent to 42 percent. 

The 20th District, which spans Broward and Palm Beach counties, is heavily Democratic, and the party’s nominee will be the favorite in the Jan. 11 special general election, when four other nonaffiliated candidates will also be on the ballot. 

Hastings, who died in April, won a 15th term last fall, defeating Musselwhite by 57 points. President Joe Biden carried the district by 55 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections

The race attracted little interest from national groups that invested heavily in two other special election primaries in Democratic-leaning districts this cycle. Those contests, in Ohio and Louisiana, saw candidates who had the support of the Democratic establishment defeat rivals who had galvanized progressives, with both sides attracting millions of dollars in outside spending. By contrast, outside groups didn’t spend any money in the Florida race until October, and spending had remained in the low six-figures as of Election Day. 

The large field of candidates in the Florida race, many of whom agreed on core issues, made it difficult for outside groups to take sides. Democrats’ appetite for an internal shake-up has also declined as Biden’s approval ratings have flagged — it was 42 percent in an NBC News poll this week — and as Democrats in Washington struggle to pass Biden’s signature Build Back Better social spending, tax, climate and infrastructure plan. 

The Florida candidates included several high-profile current and former elected officials, who divided the allegiances of the local political elite. 

Cherfilus-McCormick, who unsuccessfully challenged Hastings in primaries in 2018 and 2020, almost exclusively financed her campaign with her own money. She loaned her campaign $3.7 million, but paid $2 million of it back to herself in June. The remainder allowed her to dwarf her competitors’ expenditures in spite of her receiving just $118,000 in individual contributions. Much of the money went to air cable ads throughout the district. 

She told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in September that using her personal wealth allowed her to maintain independence. She also hoped to attract votes from progressives, thanks in part to an early endorsement from former Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson and a media campaign touting her proposal to give most Americans $1,000 monthly checks. 

Holness positioned himself as Hastings’ protégé and chosen successor. He wore a “Hastings for Congress” mask when he announced his campaign and touted a Hastings endorsement on his campaign signs. His assertion that Hastings had endorsed him weeks before his death attracted its own scrutiny because he had no proof, although Holness has been endorsed by the late congressman’s son, Alcee “Jody” Hastings II.

Holness raised the most money from individual contributions of any candidate in the race, although his $589,000 in receipts was dwarfed by self-funders Cherfilus-McCormick and Barbara Sharief, a fellow Broward County commissioner. The Service Employees International Union spent $114,000 on advertising supporting Holness’ campaign. 

Sharief, who founded a pediatric home health care company and has been involved in local politics in the region for the last decade, largely financed her campaign with a $756,000 loan, supplemented by $139,000 in contributions. 

She was running third Tuesday night, ahead of state Sen. Perry Thurston, state House Democratic leader Bobby DuBose and state Rep. Omari Hardy. 

Hardy’s activism has attracted national attention, including a viral video of his confrontation with city commissioners over power shut-offs at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak.

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