In a year of special elections, it's Miami's turn.
Six months after Annette Taddeo won a September Florida Senate contest, amping up a Democratic narrative about a mid-term surge in the nation's largest swing state, the left is hoping to keep the momentum going Tuesday in a contest to win a temporary hold on a central-Dade state House seat. Florida's minority party believes Javier Fernandez can keep Florida's 114th District in the fold against Republican Andrew Vargas and Liz de las Cuevas, a teacher running a spoiler campaign without party affiliation.
The election — which didn't have to be held — was set after former representative Daisy Baez resigned following an admission that she lied about her address on her voter registration in order to make it appear that she lived in the district. Thousands of votes have already been cast early and by mail, though the contest has kept a low profile.
The special House race is taking place at the same time as another special House election in Central Florida. Meanwhile, Florida City is voting on an annexation proposal and North Miami voters will vote on four bond initiatives worth a combined $120 million to finance public works projects, land acquisition, housing and new and renovated government complexes.
But House District 114 is the headliner. And as voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide the race, here are five things to know:
Florida's 114th House District encompasses a slice of Miami-Dade County that stretches from Flagami in the city of Miami down through Coral Gables, West Miami, South Miami, Pinecrest and Cutler Bay. As of the latest count by the Miami-Dade supervisor of elections, 96,000 voters were registered in the district, with 35 percent registered Republican, 34 percent registered Democrat and 30 percent without party affiliation.
Heading into election day, Republican voters were turning out in greater numbers than Democrats. Of the more than 12,500 votes cast by early and absentee ballot, Republican voters had cast 5,634 ballots compared to 4,643 by Democrats.
That's reason for the left to sweat, even though Democrats in Florida have pushed their candidates over the top recently on election day. Some in the party are hoping the party's low percentage for absentee ballot returns (40 percent) is attributable to voters on the left who requested absentee ballots but are choosing instead to vote at the polls. There's also a question as to which way independent voters — who helped push Baez to victory in 2016 — are leaning.
Baez resigned in November. When she stepped down, Gov. Rick Scott called a special election for May 1.
But he didn't have to.
Miami-Dade's supervisor of elections budgeted $1.2 million for the contest and a Republican primary in February, which the state will pick up. But Florida law gave Scott the flexibility to not call a special election and leave the seat vacant until November, since whoever is elected will not spend a single day in office during a legislative session. Instead, the winner will have to immediately turn around and run to defend the seat — raising the possibility that Tuesday's election could simply be the precursor to a rematch between Fernandez and Vargas.
Both Fernandez and Vargas are rookie candidates with possibly bright futures and powerful friends.
Fernandez, 42, is a veteran land-use attorney who lobbies local Miami-Dade governments on behalf of clients, many of them developers. A former chief of staff to then-Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, Fernandez gave up his place at Holland & Knight to run for office, which the firm frowns upon. He's also told the Miami Herald Editorial Board that he'll give up his job lobbying local governments if he's holding the seat in November and voters pass a referendum that would ban elected officials from lobbying while in office and for six years after they leave.
Vargas, 36, and others have pounded Fernandez over his career in lobbying — a strategy that proved effective for Democrats recently in beating Republican lobbyists Jose Felix Diaz and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. On the other hand, Fernandez and the Florida Democratic Party have slammed the young Republican for his firm's specialization in assignment-of-benefits claims on insurance matters.
Vargas, whose former law partner Carlos Trujillo just recently left the state House to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, says he's fighting for homeowners and dismisses claims that his work is causing insurance rates to rise.
Meanwhile, Liz de las Cuevas is playing spoiler. A former Republican who changed her registration to no-party-affiliation shortly before the election, she has disavowed attack ads that slam Fernandez and cast her as the only true "progressive" in the race.
While other special elections in Florida have been cast as bellwether races, this election has avoided the national spotlight.
Democrats have used much the same playbook as they did in a hyped-up Sarasota House election two months ago, bringing in Joe Biden to endorse Fernandez and trying to tie Vargas to Trump. Fernandez has also raised at least $22,000 from dozens of small-money donations sent by Democrats outside of Florida.
But unlike James Buchanan — a congressman's son who brought in Trump surrogates to help his losing campaign against Margaret Good — Vargas hasn't helped Democrats turn the election into a referendum on Trump. He's avoided Trump talk on the stump, and avoided Trump altogether by staying away from Hialeah when the president was in town.