When seventh-grade civics teacher Jessica Harrington joined the race for Florida’s House District 64 seat this cycle, she wanted a rematch.
The Democrat learned a lot from her first go-round in 2018 against monied Republican incumbent James Grant and wanted to put that experience to good use.
Then, Grant abruptly left office to take on the role of Florida’s Chief Information Officer.
Without a GOP establishment-ordained heir apparent for the seat, Harrington and her party suddenly saw a real chance at flipping a typically red seat.
Republican Traci Koster, a family lawyer, then jumped into the fray just before the qualifying deadline.
Despite low name recognition, Koster’s entrance made the race competitive again.
Voters have been hearing a lot about the suburbs this election cycle, and outside the subdivisions of Wesley Chapel, this is about as suburban as it gets.
The district straddles the Hillsborough-Pinellas county line. Think Oldsmar, East Lake, Westchase, Citrus Park and Northdale. Outliers include Old Florida enclave Safety Harbor in Pinellas and exurban Keystone in Hillsborough.
So, it goes without saying that Republicans have a registration advantage here; a roughly 10,000 voter advantage, in fact (50,425 to 40,371.)
Still, with the lack of an incumbent – and in a year when Democrats might see some pleasant surprises in suburban realms, Democrats think flipping this seat is worth a try.
“I think we have a better shot of taking that seat this year than we ever have and possibly ever will,” said Democratic political consultant Bryan Farris. “In a Democratic wave, Jessica can pull it off.”
The race includes two young-ish newcomers, both of them female professionals. If voters had to describe them both in one word (and in the context of the district), it’d be “relatable.”
Of course, they differ on policy.
Koster entered the race light on policy positions, but her campaign website now lists safely reopening the state’s economy as chief among her priorities as a lawmaker, followed by investment in infrastructure.
COVID-19-related actions also top Harrington’s priorities list, but her focus lies more with relief in the form of fixing the state’s shambling unemployment system. More robust public-school funding is second on her list, not surprising considering her profession.
Where things stand
The early start certainly helped Harrington, at least from a cash standpoint. She has raised $267,533 to Koster’s $198,381.
“Jessica’s fundraising advantage is so incredible,” Farris said. “I don’t think anyone expected her to raise what she raised.”
In a heavily GOP-leaning district, the question is whether that will be enough – a question that gets all the more pressing when taking into account outside spending the GOP has deployed to fend off the challenge.
If polling is any indication, Harrington’s strident efforts might not be enough.
A St. Pete Polls survey taken in late October had Koster leading Harrington by 5 points – 48% to 43%, with 9% of respondents as yet undecided.
A potential Blue Wave factor also might not cut it, as the district’s voters prefer President Donald Trump over former Vice President Joe Biden 50% to 47%.