Former Hastings rival narrowly wins Democratic nod in Florida special election

Cherfilus-McCormick declared winner by five votes in crowded primary

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick was declared the winner, by five votes over her nearest rival, in the Democratic primary in Florida's 20th District. (Photo Courtesy of Sheila for Congress)
Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick was declared the winner, by five votes over her nearest rival, in the Democratic primary in Florida's 20th District. (Photo Courtesy of Sheila for Congress)
Posted November 16, 2021 at 2:17pm

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, the CEO of a home health care company, was on Tuesday declared the winner of the Democratic primary in the special election to succeed the late Democrat Alcee L. Hastings in Florida’s 20th District, defeating second-place finisher Dale V.C. Holness by just five votes. 

The result comes more than two weeks after the Nov. 2 primary and follows machine and manual recounts, reviews of about a dozen overseas and military ballots, and legal challenges that increased Cherfilus-McCormick’s margin in the crowded election by one vote. 

“This past week has been an exciting reminder of how vital our electoral process is and how every single vote counts,” Cherfilus-McCormick said in a statement. “I am grateful to the voters of District 20 for believing in me and everyone who endorsed me in this race.”

She next faces Republican nominee Jason Mariner in the Jan. 11 special general election, when four other nonaffiliated candidates will also be on the ballot. The district, which spans Broward and Palm Beach counties, is heavily Democratic — Joe Biden carried it by 55 points last fall, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections — making Cherfilus-McCormick the favorite. Hastings, who died in April, won a 15th term last fall by 57 points.

If she wins, she would be the first Haitian American to serve in Congress since Utah Republican Mia Love, who served two terms between 2015 and 2019. 

The Democratic primary result certified by Florida election officials Tuesday had Cherfilus-McCormick with 11,662 votes to Holness’ 11,657, with nine other candidates splitting another 25,763 votes, according to The Associated Press. 

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 still allowed her to dwarf her competitors’ expenditures even though she only raised $118,000 in individual contributions. Much of the money went to air cable ads throughout the district. 

Cherfilus-McCormick told the Florida Sun Sentinel in September that using her personal wealth allowed her to maintain independence. She sought the support of progressives, helped in part by 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, a Broward County commissioner, positioned himself as Hastings’ protégé and chosen successor, a claim for which he had no proof. He raised the most money from individual contributions of any candidate in the race, although his $589,000 in receipts was dwarfed by Cherfilus-McCormick and another Broward County commissioner, Barbara Sharief, who also self-funded her campaign. The Service Employees International Union spent $114,000 on advertising on Holness’ behalf.