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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Republicans outspend Democrats for Florida House seat near Orlando in election next week

Republican organizations and lawmakers have been pouring campaign money into a special election next week for a state House representative in a central Florida district considered competitive for both parties.

Republican organizations and lawmakers have been pouring campaign money into a special election next week for a state House representative in a central Florida district considered competitive for both parties.

The financial push has given a big advantage to the GOP candidate, a conservative school board member in Osceola County whose campaign strategies apparently include deciding not to speak to news organizations covering the race.

The election for House District 35 – which includes parts of Osceola and Orange counties near Orlando – is Tuesday. The race affords the GOP an opportunity to extend its margins in Tallahassee to add an 85th Republican lawmaker in the House, compared to 35 Democrats. The Florida Senate is split 28-12 in favor of Republicans.

The incumbent, Republican Fred Hawkins, resigned in June to become president of South Florida State College.

Turnout was expected to be the biggest factor in the race's outcome: By Thursday afternoon, registered Democrats held a slight lead in early voting, casting about 43% of the ballots, compared to 40% from registered Republicans. Early voting started last week. Republicans typically vote in higher numbers than Democrats on Election Day.

With Democrats, Republicans and non-party affiliated voters each comprising about one-third of the district’s eligible voters, the district is considered a highly competitive battleground whose outcome could signal whether Democrats can flip other swing seats in the November elections.

Republican organizations and GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee have given nearly $133,000 of the total $305,000 raised so far by the GOP candidate, Erika Booth. That is more than the total amount of $115,386 raised from all sources by the campaign for the Democratic candidate, Charles Thomas “Tom” Keen III.

That has allowed Booth to spend nearly five times more money in the campaign than Keen, including $116,000 on advertising and $8,200 on campaign shirts and T-shirts.

Booth’s campaign committee also received help from incumbent GOP lawmakers in the Capitol: In addition to Republican groups, she received money from the campaign accounts of Republican Reps. Robbie Brackett of Vero Beach, Jennifer Canady of Lakeland, Tiffany Esposito of Fort Myers, Mike Giallombardo of Cape Coral, Tommy Gregory of Lakewood Ranch, Traci Koster of Tampa, Spencer Road of North Fort Myers and Brad Yeager of New Port Richey.

Democratic candidate Tom Keen is seen in a photograph at Ralph V. Chisholm Regional Park in St. Cloud.
Cy J Cyr/Resonance Campaigns
Fresh Take Florida
Democratic candidate Tom Keen, who is running for the Florida House District 35 seat in central Florida in an election on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024, is seen in a photograph at Ralph V. Chisholm Regional Park in St. Cloud, Fla., taken Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, that he provided.

Keen loaned his own campaign $20,000 cash and spent $8,400 more of his own money on advertising, emails and consultants. Democrat organizations provided Keen’s campaign with about $40,000 worth of polling, consulting and campaign staff.

Each candidate won a three-way primary in November.

Keen, 67, is a manager at Collins Aerospace and former Navy commander and flight officer who lives in Lake Nona. He lost the primary for the seat in 2022.

“I think that the reason I want to do what I'm doing is based on my military service, and it's all about serving the community,” Keen said.

Keen said his two biggest priority issues are addressing Florida’s insurance crisis and protecting abortion rights. In an interview with Fresh Take Florida, a news service run by the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, he also said he supports affordable housing and environmental protections.

Keen said he supports capping insurance premium increases in the short term to stop rate increases, increasing oversight of insurance companies to ensure they are able to pay claims after major disasters and putting money back in the pockets of workers and seniors through direct subsidies from the state’s budget surplus.

Booth, 46, has campaigned with slogans that include “stop the woke mob,” “cancel the woke agenda,” “stop the brainwashing” and “free and fair elections,” along with embracing former President Donald Trump’s “America First” platform.

She has been tough to pin down for an interview. She responded in an email Jan. 7 that she would answer questions then went silent. Since then, she did not respond to messages left with her campaign manager, school board office, a campaign consultant or her husband, who said she was not immediately available because she was out campaigning and agreed to speak with her about conducting an interview.

Likewise, the editorial board for the Orlando Sentinel, the biggest newspaper in the region, said Booth didn’t respond to its inquiries about her political positions on important topics.

“We’ve had no response to requests to talk about what she believes on state issues, and she still appears confused about what office she’s seeking,” the board wrote in an editorial last week that included endorsing Keen. “Most of her communications have talked more about immigration, border security and other issues that Florida legislators can’t do much about.“

Booth’s campaign website – managed by a consulting firm, Simwins LLC of Tampa, that has become a powerful force on winning Republican campaigns – includes criticism of President Joe Biden’s handling of the economy and the border crisis.

Simwins – which was paid $184,330 by Booth’s campaign – is run by Anthony Pedicini, Thomas Piccolo and David Millner. It’s earned $31.4 million in campaign payments since 2020 and has worked on GOP campaigns for Attorney General Ashley Moody, former House Speaker Chris Sprowls, former House Speaker Richard Corcoran and former Senate President Bill Galvano.

Booth was first elected to the school board in 2022 and lives south of St. Cloud in the district. She has won the Teacher of the Year awards twice at schools where she taught. Her husband is an Osceola County commissioner, Ricky Booth, who also previously held her current school board seat.

House District 35 extends from the northern boundary of Orange to the southern boundary of Osceola. It was created in its current form after legislative redistricting following the 2020 Census. In 2022, Hawkins, the Republican, won the only election in the district 55%-45%.

About three-fourths of the voters live in Orange County.

Two men stand at the entrance of the House of Representatives in the state Capitol Building in Tallahassee, Fla.
File Photo/Sam Thomas
Fresh Take Florida
Two men stand at the entrance of the House of Representatives in the state Capitol Building in Tallahassee, Fla.

Keen said his campaign was aggressively knocking on doors, sending out mail and using social media to boost turnout among Democrats and win over voters who identify as being affiliated with no political party.

“Our strategy involves reaching out to all voters, regardless of party affiliation, and discussing issues that impact their daily lives. We are engaging with voters through targeted messaging about non-partisan issues like the economy, education, and healthcare,” Keen said. “We're also using data-driven approaches to identify and connect with voters who may be open to our message, regardless of their usual political leanings.”

Results from another special House election may boost Democrats’ confidence.

Last month, Republican Rep. Mike Redondo won a race by a slimmer margin – only 540 votes – than expected in House District 118, a heavily leaning GOP district in South Florida. Republicans accounted for about 45% of voter turnout compared to Democrats at about 36% and NPAs at about 19%. Redondo defeated Democrat Johnny Farias by about 52% to 46%. Farias previously lost the election for the same seat in 2022 by 68% to 32%.

“I think that was a pretty strong indicator that the voters are upset with what Republicans are getting away with today,” Keen said. “Voters are looking beyond party lines and focusing more on the issues and the character of the candidates.”


This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at silas.morgan@ufl.edu.

Copyright 2024 WUFT 89.1. To see more, visit WUFT 89.1.

Silas Morgan | Fresh Take Florida