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Darryl Paulson: Can Democrats regain control of the Florida Congressional Delegation?

Since losing control of the Florida Congressional Delegation over a quarter-century ago, the Democrats have their best opportunity to regain control in 2018.

All the signs on both the national and state level favoring the Democrats.

After his first year, Donald Trump is the most unpopular president in modern history. The generic vote favors Democrats and they have clobbered Republicans in special elections. The most stunning was the victory of Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore. If Republicans cannot win in ultra-red Alabama, can they win anywhere?

In Florida, Republicans have all but abandoned the race to retain the seat held by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for a quarter century. Why waste money in a seat that is heavily Democrat and that Hillary Clinton won by 20 percent.

Neighboring District 26, held by Republican Carlos Curbelo, will also be hard to retain. District 26 is the most Democratic district in the nation held by a Republican. Curbelo has raised over $2 million, so this is not a sure pickup for the Democrats.

Republican Brian Mast, in District 18, has also raised over $2 million, but pundits have moved the seat from “likely Republican” to “leans Republican.” Mast, a double amputee from the Afghan conflict, has just announced his opposition to the sale of assault weapons. Will this help or hurt his campaign?

Republican Ron DeSantis is abandoning a safe seat in District 6 to run for governor. Will Republicans be able to retain this seat against a strong challenge from Nancy Soderberg, former national security adviser for President Bill Clinton?

Republican Gus Bilirakis in District 12 has won most of his races by 20 points or more, but he faces a tough challenge from former FBI agent and federal prosecutor Chris Hunter, who has skills in attracting media attention.

Finally, Republican Vern Buchanan in District 16 faces his most difficult campaign since defeating Keith Fitzgerald by 7 percent in 2012. Shapiro is an attorney with broad name recognition and the ability to raise sufficient resources. The defeat of Buchanan’s son James in a special election for a Florida House seat has heightened concerns for Buchanan’s supporters.

Republicans still have the advantage, but Democrats need only to flip three seats to take control of the delegation.

The opportunity is there. Will the Democrats be able to take advantage of the situation?

Josie Tomkow KOs Jennifer Spath in HD 39 special primary election

In what may be shaping up as the political “Year of the Woman,” Josie Tomkow has won the Republican primary for House District 39, which opened up over Thanksgiving with the departure of Neil Combee.

Tomkow, a 22-year-old University of Florida student, took a decisive 65 percent of the vote to become her party’s nominee for the Republican-leaning seat covering Auburndale, Polk City, North Lakeland and a portion of Osceola County.

Combee had won re-election in HD 39 by more than 62 percent in 2016.

“The community, especially the agricultural community, showed up!” Tomkow said in a statement. “As I’ve said from day one, I’ll never stop fighting for the people of this district, our heritage and our way of life.”

Tomkow’s opponent, 34-year-old Jennifer Spath, was trounced with only 35 percent of the vote.

Tomkow previously worked in the office of Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, and in her parent’s business, Cattlemen’s Livestock Market in Lakeland. Throughout the race, she has led in fundraising, taking in nearly $120,000 by Feb. 15.

“Josie was one hell of a campaigner,” said Republican consultant Tom Piccolo.

Spath, a former prosecutor in the 10th Judicial Circuit, raised only $27,325 in the race, and loaned her campaign $31,500.

The race became contentious after a political-action committee supporting Tomkow sent six flyers in the last month to HD 39 Republican voters, which described Spath as a “liberal” fan of Hillary Clinton and soft on crime as a prosecutor.

“You can’t trust liberal lawyer Jennifer Spath’s judgment,” one of the mailers said, pointing out that, in 2012, she agreed to a plea deal to a man charged with battering a law enforcement officer.

“The man only spent 120 days in jail with 12 months’ probation for this crime of battery on a law enforcement officer,” the flyer stated. The flyers were paid for by the Venice-based Make America Great Again political action committee.

Another flyer showed a picture of Spath next to Clinton with a heart between them.

On Nov. 24, Combee resigned his seat to take a post as state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency.

Tomkow now faces Democrat Ricky Shirah in the May 1 special election.

Hillsborough Republicans choose new chair Tuesday

For years, the Hillsborough GOP dominated local politics.

However, over the past few years, their grip has begun to loosen.

Long known as a bellwether in presidential elections, Hillsborough went big for Hillary Clinton in 2016, while the rest of the state went for Donald Trump.

And while local Republicans won all of the county’s legislative elections, former federal prosecutor Andrew Warren defeated incumbent Mark Ober in the State Attorney’s race by running on a reform agenda, while Pat Kemp easily defeated Tim Schock in the only countywide race for commissioner.

The collective energy levels of the two local parties have been evident since the 2016 election, with the Hillsborough Democrats having signed up a record 270 precinct members in recent months, while the GOP meetings are not nearly as well attended.

On Tuesday night, members of the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee will choose a new chair to succeed Deborah Tamargo, who resigned last month over what seemed to be a relatively trivial matter.

Then again, Tamargo had been constantly fending off critics ever since she defeated former chair Debbie Cox-Roush in December 2014.

In December 2016, she was challenged by Jonny Torres, who was backed by Republican state House members Jamie Grant, Dan Raulerson (since retired), and Ross Spano, in an ultimately losing effort.

“Out of respect to Chairwoman Tamargo, not everyone is willing to step forward,” Torres said in a debate regarding unhappiness some party members felt about her leadership. “What I keep hearing from the campaigns and the consultants time and time again is that they saw little to no members from the REC supporting their efforts.”

Party members will choose a replacement for Tamargo Tuesday night. GOP consultant April Schiff will be running against Jim Waurishuk, a former deputy intelligence chief of U.S. Central Command.

Waurisuk was one of four members of the party’s executive committee to file a grievance last year against Tamargo, accusing her of violating state party rules, specifically in her manner of discussion over the site of the party’s monthly meetings.

Indicted Russians to pro-Trump groups: ‘If we lose Florida, we lose America’

Thirteen Russian nationals who posed as Americans in social media and courted pro-Trump political groups in Florida are accused of criminally interfering with the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, according to an indictment unsealed Friday.

The Justice Department’s special counsel announced the indictment against the group of Russian social media trolls and operatives on Friday. But prosecutors said the Russians’ effort to gather intel about U.S. politics began in 2014, and their target were “purple states.”

The indictment does not charge that Russian succeeded in swaying any votes, but it says Russians played a role in promoting President Donald Trump and making “derogatory” comments against Hillary Clinton. Their method was to use false U.S. personas to communicate with Trump campaign staff in local communities, including in Florida.

“The Russians also recruited and paid real Americans to engage in political activities from both political campaigns and staged political rallies. The defendants and their co-conspirators pretended to be grassroots activists,” prosecutors said.

Americans, however, did not know they were communicating with Russians, prosecutors add.

When the election was at its peak, there were a few instances in which Russians messed with pro-Trump groups in Florida and came into contact with Trump campaign officials in the state.

A “Florida Goes Trump!” event staged last August by the “Being Patriotic” page, which in the indictment is described as part of the Russians’ “conspiracy to defraud.” Trump’s Florida campaign manager, Susie Wiles, told Florida Politics these events were not part of the official campaign. “Florida Goes Trump!” also held Jacksonville events organized by Gary Snow, one of Trump’s most visible supporters.

The indictment also charges that Russians used social media accounts last November to promote a false voter fraud conspiracy theory in Broward County, alleging that tens of thousands of ineligible mail-in Clinton voter were being reported.

Prosecutors also said Russians paid two Americans at Florida pro-Trump rallies to “build a cage on a flatbed truck and wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform.”

Last August, Russians used the false U.S. persona “Matt Skiber” on Facebook to contact a Florida-based Trump supporter group, pushing for the group to organize a “YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town.”

“Florida is a purple state and we need to paint it red,” the Russians wrote, “If we lose Florida, we lose America.”

An early look at the Vern Buchanan-David Shapiro CD 16 showdown

For Sarasota-area Democrats, hope springs eternal.

Tuesday night, Margaret Good won a decisive seven-point victory over Republican James Buchanan in the House District 72 special election.

Now Democrats are eyeing much bigger prey — Florida’s 16th Congressional District held by Vern Buchanan, who made millions owning car dealership before turning to politics in 2006, winning a hugely controversial victory over Democrat Christine Jennings.

Since then, Buchanan has never faced a serious threat.

Sarasota Republicans openly mocked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last spring when they added CD 16 to the list of seats that they were targeting for recruiting and potential investment.

“The Democrats have zero chance at winning this seat,” quipped Sarasota Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters after that announcement was made. And while not sounding so bravado immediately after Good was declared the victor on Tuesday night, still vowed that he was “confident” that the GOP will win the seat back in November.

Democrats have found the man they believe can topple Buchanan in the fall in attorney David Shapiro, who in the last quarter of 2017 received more than 500 contributors totaling more than $250,000.

Shortly after Good’s victory Tuesday night, Shapiro’s campaign team fired off a memo to reporters (available on his campaign website) laying out the predicate on how they believe Buchanan is now very vulnerable.

However, it appeared that some of the data employed in the original memo to reporters was inaccurate.

The memo begins by asserting, HD 72 makes up 21.6 percent of the 16th Congressional District and is “a full 10-points more Republican by party registration” than CD 16 as a whole.

Where HD 72 saw a 12-point swing between 2016 and 2018, the memo asserts CD 16 will put Shapiro in “a strong position to win in November.”

According to a graph in Shapiro’s memo, HD 72 party registration is 50 percent Republican, 29 percent Democrat and 20 percent independent. Comparing it to the CD 16 political party breakdown, the memo claims HD 72 is a “full 10 points” more Republican.

Not exactly. A check of the closing book on party registration on HD 72 as of last month shows — courtesy of the Division of Elections website — that is in fact, 42 percent Republican, 33 percent Democratic, and 25 percent NPA. That breakdown is extremely close to the CD 16 demographics of 41 percent Republican, 32 percent Democrat and 27 percent independent (HD 72 makes up 21.6 percent of CD 16).

When contacted, Shapiro campaign manager Jason Ascher acknowledged the error and has subsequently corrected it on the website.

The highest-profile Democratic candidate on the ballot in 2016 and 2014 also fared much better in HD 72 than in CD 16.

In 2016, Donald Trump won HD 72 by 4.8 percent over Hillary Clinton but took CD 16 by 10.8 percent (Buchanan also defeated Democrat Jan Schneider by 19.6 percent).

In 2014, Charlie Crist won HD 72 by 1 percent over Rick Scott. Nevertheless, Scott took CD 16 by 6 percent.

So recent elections bear out the assumption that, statistically, CD 16 will be a harder road to hoe for Democrats than HD 72 was.

Not that it can’t (or won’t) be done in 2018.

The Sarasota GOP establishment still believes Buchanan’s hegemony in the district can’t be broken.

“I don’t think there’s any chance that the Democrats can beat him, just because he’s done such a great job,” says Sarasota Republican Committeeman Christian Ziegler, a former longtime aide to Buchanan. “When you look at his record, he’s right in line with the district, and if you look at his hustle, I don’t think know if there’s a congressman that works more aggressively and does more outreach to the community than Vern.”

“Our argument still holds,” counters Ascher. “These two districts are very similar and what happened Tuesday night bodes very well for David’s campaign heading into November.”

Email insights: James Buchanan closes HD 72 race with Donald Trump playbook

For the closing moments of the House District 72 special election, Republican James Buchanan ripped a page from the Donald Trump campaign playbook – holding a Trump-like rally, complete with a chorus of “lock her up.”

While intended to excite supporters, the demonstration also set Democrats on fire.

The hourlong rally in Sarasota County – featuring a visit from Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski – sent a familiar message to many of the president’s supporters.

But the highlight of the event – and one that riled Democrats the most – came courtesy of state Rep. Jay Fant, a Republican in the race for attorney general, who asked the crowd of about 200, “Are we Trumpers?”

That applause line was quickly followed by another, more familiar chorus, where Fant compared Buchanan’s opponent, Democrat Margaret Good, with Hillary Clinton – chanting the popular Trump refrain “lock her up.”

Predictably, Democrats sprang into defense mode, with a call to supporters on the day before voters go to the polls in HD 72.

“The tone of the rally and the visit is on par with the campaign that Buchanan has ran, tying himself to Trump, and his father, Congressman Vern Buchanan, not to his own merits,” says an email from Florida Democratic Party representative Caroline Rowland.

Rowland continued: “This kind of rhetoric has no place in Southwest Florida in 2018 … Republicans continue to make defending Trump and his priorities their top issue, ignoring the fact that half of our state is in a recession … James Buchanan has made it very clear who he stands for, and it’s not the people of Sarasota.”

It should come as no surprise that tying a Republican candidate to Trump, one of the most of unpopular figures in politics, is a strategy many Democrats across the country will embrace in 2018. Then again, Republicans are increasingly using Trump cohorts (like Lewandowski and state Rep. Joe Gruters, who served as the candidate’s top man in Florida) to motivate supporters and boost turnout in special elections like HD 72 and the upcoming midterms.

It’s a battle we will see play out nationwide in the coming months. And Tuesday could show ultimately which narrative is more effective.

Matt Haggman claims his CD 27 fundraising tops any Democrat in Florida, Southeast

As “the best Democratic pickup opportunity in the country” — dubbed such by New York Times Upshot columnist Nate Cohn last summer — Florida’s 27th Congressional District is among the most competitive in 2018, at least with Democrats.

Since entering the CD 27 race in August, former Knight Foundation Director and Miami Herald reporter Matt Haggman has raised more than $917,000, which his campaign claims is better than any other Democratic challenger running for Congress in Florida this year.

Furthermore, they maintain that his $404,000 haul in the fourth quarter alone was more than any other Florida Democratic incumbent (besides St. Petersburg’s Charlie Crist) and second among all Congressional Democratic challengers in the entire Southeast.

“I’m overwhelmed to have such strong support from the community, and I am proud to be running a campaign powered entirely by people, not PACs,” said Haggman in a statement.

“When voters send me to D.C., they will never have to wonder whether I am casting votes for them or the special interests. Every time, my vote will be cast for the residents of Florida’s 27th Congressional District,” he added.

At this point, note that state Rep. David Richardson began the year with the most money of any Democrat running in CD 27. The Miami Beach Democrat’s campaign coffers had over one million dollars, as well as the most cash on hand with more than $857,000.

However, Richardson’s totals also include a $500,000 campaign loan.

“My campaign’s financial support comes from more than 11,000 individuals who have made 18,000 donations,” Richardson responded. “That is more individual contributions than any candidate in this race, and we have the lowest average contribution of just $27 dollars. That’s $173,000 in low-dollar donations, 4 times as much as Haggman. We can’t have a campaign finance system that is dominated by Wall Street, and the millionaire class. Haggman’s campaign has raised 59% of their total donations, from 140 maxed out donors. That’s a campaign that is funded by the 1%, I’m committed to running a campaign funded by the people.”

Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen held CD 27 for the past 29 years; she announced last year she would not run for re-election in 2018. That led to an explosion of Democrats competing in a district where Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by more than 19 points in 2016.

In addition to Haggman and Richardson, other Democrats in the race include federal judge nominee Mary Barzee Flores, state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn and Miami City Commissioners Ken Russell and Kristen Rosen Gonzalez,


Steve Schale: Thoughts on the Sarasota special election

In eight days, there will be a special election in Sarasota. It is a race that probably shouldn’t look interesting, but alas, it is turning into one heck of a fight.

For those of you not from Florida, the corners of this state take on the characteristics of the part of the country where people migrate from.

Sarasota, like much of Florida from Tampa south to Naples, has a Midwestern feel, a result of migration that came down from the parts of America accessed from I-75.

So, the voters here, in large part, have more in common with voters from the northern suburbs of Chicago (the district used to be spring training home to the real Chicago baseball team, the White Sox) than they do with voters who live just 20 miles to the east, in the more rural parts of Sarasota County.

The seat became open when the incumbent, Republican Alex Miller, resigned due to a change in her business. The Republicans have nominated James Buchanan, the son of the area’s incumbent Congressman, Vern Buchanan. The Democratic candidate is Margaret Good, a local attorney.

House District 72 is a lean-Republican district. Mitt Romney won it by 4, and Donald Trump won it by 5. Overall, Republicans have a ten-point advantage in voter registration.

However, despite these numbers, this is a place where Democrats have won:  from 2006-2010, this seat was held by a Democrat, Keith Fitzgerald. In 2014, Charlie Crist beat Rick Scott by about 1.5 percent, and in 2008, Barack Obama and John McCain played to a draw.

Nonetheless, conventional wisdom would say this seat should be a little more Republican in a special election, due to their super voter turnout advantage, but alas, this isn’t a conventional wisdom year.

With a week to go before the Election, Democrats are turning out their voters at a higher rate than Republicans, and the race appears to be headed to a very tight finish.

Just how close?

Well as of this morning, some 20,621 voters have cast a ballot either by returning an absentee ballot or by voting in person at an early voting site, with Republicans holding a 199-ballot advantage.

So far, just under 17 percent of District 72 voters have voted. Democratic voter turnout is at 22.5 percent, while 17.5 percent of the district’s GOP voters have cast a ballot.

So how does this district typically perform?

In the last three top of the ticket races:  the 2012 presidential, the 2014 governor’s race, and the 2016 presidentials, there is a distinct pattern: Democrats have won the votes cast before Election Day, and Republicans have won Election Day.

In 2012 and 2016, Obama and Hillary Clinton went into Election Day with a 3.5 and 5-point lead respectively. In 2012, Romney won Election Day by 15 percent, and in 2016, Trump won by 26 percent.

But 2014 looked a bit different, and in it, the path for how Democrats win here:  Crist went into Election Day with a 7-point lead, but this time, Republicans only won Election Day by 6, leading to the Crist win in the district.

But since 2016 was more recent, let’s take a closer look at that race.

Overall, Republicans had about an 11.5 percent advantage in the share of the electorate. The way this broke down:  Republicans held a 5.5 percent advantage in the share of voters who voted before Election Day, and about a 23 percent advantage on Election Day. Just as in this race, Democrats had a higher turnout rate before Election Day than Republicans, but on Election Day, Democratic turnout cratered and GOP turnout spiked.

This translated to Clinton 5-point advantage among the 68 percent of the HD 72 voters who voted before Election Day, and Trump winning the remaining voters on Election Day by 26, for an overall Trump 5 percent win.

If you compare where Good is today compared to Clinton, in terms of turnout, the district is definitely more Democratic than it was going into Election Day in 2016.

By any fair assumption, given the district’s current turnout, and historical performance, she should be ahead by at least as much as Clinton was going into Election Day.

The unknown question, can she hold on — and just how much of a lead does she need to pull off the upset?

Eight days out, there are two big questions.

Republicans have more outstanding vote-by-mail ballots, so they see their numbers improve — though, over the last week, the delta between the two parties hasn’t changed much (remember Democrats in 2016 statewide left a lot more ballots on kitchen tables than did Republicans).

Right now, Democrats have returned 68 percent of their ballots, and Republicans have returned 65 percent, so I will be curious over the next week if the GOP can close that gap. What the final margin going into Election Day looks like will say a lot about the next point.

How much can Good lose Election Day by and still win?

If Election Day looks like Crist ‘14, she wins. If it looks like Trump ‘16, she loses.

Almost surely, it will land somewhere between the two.

Turnout can be hard to predict in these races. With more than a week to go, the turnout rate is already higher than the entire state Senate special election in Miami last fall.

In the recent St. Petersburg mayor’s race, 37 percent of the total vote came on Election Day. In the Miami State Senate race, it was around 27 percent. By the end of the week, this picture will be much more clear.

But one thing is for certain, this race is headed to the wire. Again, in a conventional special election, in a conventional year, this is a race we would not be talking about. But it isn’t, thus we are.

And at this point, a Democratic win here is far from improbable.

David Richardson introduces resolution calling for Donald Trump’s impeachment

Democratic state Rep. David Richardson, who is running for Congress, introduced a resolution Wednesday morning calling for the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

The state House has no say in the impeachment of a president, though Richardson’s resolution aims to urge Florida’s state and federal elected officials to support the articles of impeachment filed last year by Tennessee Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen.

“The evidence is strong that President Trump committed obstruction of justice,” Richardson said. “Last night’s State of the Union further demonstrates that this president is fundamentally unfit for office and Americans across the country must stand together in order to hold Trump accountable. I am even more convinced today than when I first called for Trump’s impeachment last November that this President must be removed from office. I hope others will join me.”

The Miami Beach Democrat is one of several candidates vying to flip the seat currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is retiring at the end of her term. Hillary Clinton carried CD 27 by 20 points in 2016.

Richardson filed the impeachment resolution at the start of the 2018 Legislative Session and has publicly called for Trump’s impeachment as far back as November.

At the beginning of his congressional campaign, he sent an email to supporters asking what they thought about impeaching the president.

“We were getting more replies on that topic than anything else we were messaging,” he recently told Florida Politics; more than health care, gun violence prevention or climate change issues, specifically.

He’s not the only Democrat in the crowded CD 27 primary race to throw out the suggestion.

Democrats Mary Barzee Flores, state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, former Knight Foundation director and Miami Herald reporter Matt Haggman, Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell and University of Miami academic adviser Michael Hepburn are all in favor, as is Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, though she was more measured in her take, saying that it’s “a serious process, and not one to be taken lightly, and if once all the facts are in, and impeachment is warranted, then absolutely.”

Matt Gaetz lauds Andrew McCabe resignation as ‘a step forward’

Monday saw a victory for the Donald Trump administration and its Congressional defenders when FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe stepped down.

As CNN pithily described it, “McCabe had become a central target of President Donald Trump’s ire toward the FBI over its involvement in the investigation into potential collusion between his campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.”

McCabe, slated to step down in March, has been said to be using accumulated leave. Members of the Florida Congressional Delegation have been among the staunchest Trump White House defenders, and the first to respond was Pensacola Rep. Matt Gaetz.

“The news that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is stepping down is a step forward. The past several weeks and months have seen worrisome evidence of bias and wrongdoing at the FBI come to light, including Peter Strzok’s ‘insurance policy’ that was discussed in ‘Andy’s office.’ This behavior is not befitting of America’s premiere law enforcement agency, which, like Justice itself, must be impartial,” Gaetz asserted via statement from his Congressional office.

“The FBI must do what it can to move forward with a clean slate. McCabe’s resignation was the right choice, and a step in the right direction. I will continue fighting on behalf of the American people to expose and eradicate corruption within the FBI and Department of Justice — equal and fair treatment under the law is the cornerstone of American values, and must be upheld at all times,” Gaetz added.

Gaetz has scrutinized what he and other Republicans perceive to be a tilt toward Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign from the FBI and the Department of Justice, and McCabe stepping down will allow the White House to select someone more attuned with Republican views on these organizations.

In December, Gaetz called attention to “extreme pro-Hillary Clinton bias” in the FBI, spotlighting on Fox News a McCabe email that denoted a “headquarters special.”

Per the Pensacola News-Journal, the “headquarter special” was an indication that “the normal processes at the Washington field office weren’t followed and he had a very small group of people that had a pro-Hillary Clinton bias who had a direct role in changing the outcome of that investigation from one that likely should have been criminal to one where she was able to walk.”

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