On the third day of early voting during 2014, the last time the country had a mid-term election, slightly more than 1,000 people cast their ballot ahead of election day in Monroe County.
Fast-forward four years and already nearly 20 percent of registered Florida Keys voters turned in their ballots by Wednesday either at polling places or by mail — 2,433 and 7,734, respectively, according to the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections office.
Both candidates for the District 120 state House seat are encouraged by the high turnout.
Three-term State Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo, is defending her seat against Democratic challenger Steve Friedman, a well-known Islamorada backcountry fishing guide who is running on a platform of improving the water quality of Florida Bay.
“It’s obviously really exciting to see early voting turnout. It gives folks the chance not to wait in line, particularly with a long ballot,” Raschein said, noting that in addition to all the congressional, state and local candidates, this year’s ballot contains 13 amendments to the state constitution. “It’s an incredibly important mid-term election with the possibility of a new cabinet, new governor, and maybe even a new U.S. senator.”
Raschein, 37, said she is confident in her chances of representing District 120, which runs includes parts of South Miami-Dade and all of the Keys, for a fourth and final two-year term.
“I’ve done a good job and I’ve surrounded myself with good people. And, that’s what I’m taking to the bank,” Raschein said.
Friedman, 47 disagrees, dismissing Raschein as a well-connected, rarely challenged, career politician who’ has done the bare minimum for the Keys during her time in office.
“She brought all this money into the district. What is that in relation to what? It sounds important, but that’s her job,” Friedman said.
Friedman said Raschein has done little for Everglades cleanup and efforts to reduce freshwater discharges filled with agricultural runoff into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries that could be intensifying the red tide algae bloom plaguing the west coast of the state.
“She voted, not once, but twice to further delay cleanup of Lake Okeechobee,” Friedman said. “The Democratic Environmental Caucus gave her a D rating.”
But, Raschein said she is proud of her environmental record. She brought Senate Bill 10 to the House floor that Gov. Rick Scott signed in May 2017. The bill prioritizes the creation of a deep-water reservoir south of Okeechobee designed to clean the lake’s discharge of billions of gallons of water before it moves into the estuaries and south to the Everglades before it reaching Florida Bay.
But, the project needs congressional approval, which has yet to happen.
“Based on his continued misinterpretation of the Legislature’s work and my record, it is clear that my opponent was not engaged in the process when these bills were being considered because if he was, he would have a better understanding of the larger context surrounding these issues,” Raschein said. “As basin management plans are completed and the Department of Environmental Protection continues their implementation of best management practices in the Lake Okeechobee, Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River basins, the Legislature has at times supported requests to make updates to timelines and benchmarks.”
She said by giving DEP more time, the agency has greatly reduced the amount of phosphorous coming from the lake.
“I have never voted to stop this critical and ongoing clean-up, and I think we need to continue to implement science-based solutions that help improve the hydrology, water quality and aquatic habitats within these watersheds because they are essential to the protection of the Everglades,” Raschein said.
She said her other environmental accomplishments include expediting the bridging of the Tamiami Trail and securing funding for the C-111 spreader canal on the 18 Mile Stretch of U.S. 1 leading from Florida City on the mainland to Key Largo, “two critical projects that, when complete, will bring more clean, fresh water into Florida Bay.”
“Campaigning is hard, but governing is harder,” Raschein said in response to critics.
Heading into the homestretch before the Nov. 6 elections, Raschein’s war chest is considerably higher than Friedman’s, but his numbers are still impressive considering he’s new to politics and lacks corporate and political action committee backing.
Since she announced her bid for reelection, Raschein’s campaign has raised more than $334,000, according to state campaign finance records. Friedman, who launched his campaign in July, has raised $137,114.
In comparison with Raschein’s previous races, her first Democratic challenger, Ian Whitney, raised $74,610 in 2012. And, Dan Horton’s 2016 campaign against Raschein raised just $22,975, according to state campaign finance records.
“This is a movement, a cultural shift to put people over profits,” Friedmand said. “You cannot take money from a corrupt system if you want to fix it.”
Raschein, a consultant, is popular in the Keys among both Republicans and Democrats. She began her career as a legislative aide to the late Ken Sorensen when he served in the House. Sorensen was a political powerhouse in Florida who was a senior member of now-Sen. Marco Rubio’s staff when he was speaker of the state House, and he was also tapped by Rubio in 2010 to work on his successful U.S. Senate campaign against then-Gov. Charlie Crist.
Sorensen backed Democrat Ron Saunders to take his place when he was term-limited out of representing District 120 in 2006. Saunders won, and Raschein went on to serve as his legislative aide until she too was elected in 2012.
Raschein said in a television commercial that began airing in South Florida earlier this month that her professional background working with members of both parties makes her the better candidate to serve the constituents’ interests in the Keys.
“I’ve proven that for hurricane recovery, water projects, protecting our environment and affordable housing, I’ll work with anyone, anytime for all of us,” she said.
Raschein is polling ahead of Friedman, but some polls are tighter than she’d like, a factor she attributes to the highly charged political climate nationwide where people on both sides of the aisle who don’t typically vote strictly along party lines are pledging party loyalty to either bring or stanch the “blue wave.”
“It’s because of the environment and universe we’re in,” she said. “When you add emotion to politics.”
But Friedman said something else is going on. He believes Keys and South Miami-Dade voters want new leadership in Tallahassee and he is the first person in a long time with a real chance at defeating Raschein.
“I really think we have a pretty good shot at shocking the world,” Friedman said. “A first-time candidate, a fishing guide with no political experience could upend a three-time Republican incumbent.”