With record turnout, Siesta Key attorney wins bellwether race amid national spotlight.
Democrats seized the national spotlight with another victory in a legislative district that President Donald Trump carried and added more momentum to their midterm election ambitions by propelling Siesta Key attorney Margaret Good to an upset win Tuesday in Florida’s state House District 72 race.
Good beat Republican James Buchanan and Libertarian Alison Foxall in a race that morphed from a sleepy special election for a relatively low-profile legislative seat into a national bellwether, one that attracted attention from high-profile political figures and likely broke the voter turnout record for similar Florida elections.
The final results weren’t close, adding to the narrative that Democrats are on a roll nationwide. Good won by seven percentage points, claiming 52.2 percent of the vote compared with 44.8 percent for Buchanan and 3 percent for Foxall. That’s a huge swing from 2016 when Trump won the District by 4.4 percentage points.
“I just think people deserve better and want to have better and still have hope that there’s going to be something better than our current administration on both the federal and state level,” Good said as she celebrated her win with a large crowd of supporters at Mattison’s Forty-One Restaurant in Sarasota. “Wins like this represent that.”
Millions of dollars flooded into the race as both major parties sought to make a statement. The contest largely became a referendum on Trump. Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, flew in on the eve of the election to rally Republicans for Buchanan.
But despite Trump having carried District 72 and Republicans having 12,060 more registered voters in the district than Democrats, Good pulled out a convincing victory with a message that the GOP leadership in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., is going down the wrong path.
Democrats rallied behind Good, giving her campaign ample resources. The Florida Democratic Party ignored the District 72 seat in recent years after failing to recruit strong candidates. But the party jumped in on Good’s behalf early, paying for staff and other campaign expenses.
Good also received considerable support from national progressive groups, which channeled large numbers of small-dollar contributions to her campaign from progressive activists around the country. Prominent Democrats such as former Vice Preisdent Joe Biden and 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley endorsed Good and helped with her campaign.
Good’s strong fundraising — she raised more money for her main campaign account than Buchanan even though the GOP candidate is the son of a wealthy congressman — allowed her to mount a big advertising blitz and aggressive get-out-the-vote operation.
That effort brought out voters who typically might have been inclined to skip such an election.
Sarasota resident Angela Alderton, 39, cast her ballot for Good Tuesday morning at Southside Baptist Church with her 2-year-old daughter in tow. A registered Democrat who works part time in retail and has three children, Alderton is not somebody who votes in every election.
“I almost blew it off,” she said of the District 72 race.
But Good’s campaign was persistent. An army of volunteers repeatedly knocked on Alderton’s door and she received a steady stream of mailers about the race.
“If she’s spending the money and all that on getting the flyers to my house,” Alderton said when asked why she decided to vote, adding: “It kind of stuck to me this time.”
Alderton said she was most concerned about environmental issues, something Good highlighted throughout her campaign. The centerpiece of her advertising efforts was a television ad that talked about the need to address climate change and accused Buchanan of denying climate science.
Buchanan called the ad deceitful, saying he believes climate change is a serious problem. Good’s campaign never produced any evidence that Buchanan ever said he did not believe in climate change. The ad showed that Democrats were willing to play hardball.
Much of the race focused on other hot-button national issues, such as immigration. Buchanan tried to paint Good as a friend of sanctuary cities and as a “liberal lawyer” in the mold of U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
That the race became so nationalized is a sign that the underlying motivation for many voters right now is Trump, either trying to handicap his presidency or support it.
Good tied Buchanan to Trump in her ads early on, betting that the president’s popularity had waned in the district and more people would be motivated to vote against him than for him.
Buchanan said little about Trump for most of the race but embraced him in the final stretch in the hopes of leveraging the GOP voter registration advantage in the district and motivating hardcore Trump supporters to come out and vote. Buchanan won among voters who cast ballots on Election Day, but only by 110 votes. That wasn’t nearly enough to overcome the advantage Good built up through absentee and in-person early voting. Good won early voting by 3,368 votes.
Even before Election Day voting commenced, the race already appeared to have set a record for voter turnout in a state House special election in Florida, a sign of how much interest the contest generated and its evolution into a political spectacle that has ramifications far beyond Sarasota County.
Voter turnout figures for special elections in the state’s online archives only go back to 2003, but since then the largest voter turnout for a state House special election was 22 percent in 2008. Turnout in the District 72 race already was at 22.8 percent Monday evening from absentee and in-person early voting.
The final turnout figure was 36 percent, which many political observers found astonishing for a state House special election. More than 44,000 voters cast ballots, significantly more than both parties anticipated. By comparison, 86,917 voters cast ballots in the District 72 race in 2016.
Democrats crowed about Good’s victory. The Florida Democratic Party called it “a referendum on Trump and the GOP” and predicted more successes to come for the party.
“This is the beginning of a movement here in Florida,” the party said in a statement. “We will continue to work hard in every race, up and down the ballot, because Floridians deserve better.”
Lamar Matthews, a prominent Sarasota Democrat who recruited Good to work for his Matthews Eastmoore law firm and encouraged her to run for the District 72 seat, said Good’s win is one of Democrats’ most exciting victories in this region, and one with big implications beyond the district.
“This election has electrified the entire state and taught Democrats what it takes to win,” Matthews said.
Good’s victory could be short-lived, though. It only assures her nine months in office. The February special election was precipitated by former GOP state Rep. Alex Miller’s resignation last summer. Good will serve out the remainder of Miller’s two-year term but must run for the seat again in November, possibly against Buchanan.
The Republican candidate did not respond to a text message Tuesday asking if he plans to challenge Good for the seat again this fall, when voter turnout will be higher and Republicans could have more of an advantage. But those close to Buchanan believe he is likely to run again.
State Rep. Joe Gruters, who chairs the Sarasota GOP, attributed Good’s win to Democrats being “whipped up” and the amount of attention paid to the race as a standalone special election. He predicted the GOP will retake the seat in November when Republicans “will have a full slate of strong candidates” and Democrats will have to divide their resources between more candidates.
“I’m confident the Republican Party will be able to win back this seat,” Gruters said.
Asked about possibly facing Buchanan again, Good said she is “celebrating my victory tonight.”
“We’ll think about those things at a later time,” she added. “Right now I’m focusing on what I’m going to do in Tallahassee for the next several weeks, and that is represent Sarasota to the very best of my ability.”