Democrats in Central Florida on Tuesday decide who will serve as the party’s nominee in a critical Special Election.
Rishi Bagga, Marucci Guzmán and Tom Keen have spent months debating who deserves the nomination of the party in House District 35 — and who does not.
Bagga won the nomination in 2022 by a mere 57 votes over Keen, and went on to lose the General Election to incumbent Rep. Fred Hawkins, a St. Cloud Republican. Both jumped at the chance to run again when Hawkins resigned his seat to become President of South Florida State College.
Bagga believes he still has the backing of the grassroots. Now a lawyer, Bagga is the son of Indian immigrants who ran an Orlando hotel for years. If Bagga wins, he would make history as the first Indian American in the Legislature. He also argues his experience as the party nominee last year give him the wherewithal to run in the race now.
“We’ve been very consistent what this race is about,” Bagga said, “and that’s making sure we can flip this seat blue and stand up to extremist (Ron) DeSantis agenda.”
Guzmán served for years as the Executive Director of Latino Leadership, and has been a leader in Central Florida’s Hispanic community.
“I was recruited by Ruth’s List and Dems in Tallahassee to run because they know a strong Democrat Latina can win this seat,” Guzmán said.
Keen, meanwhile, believes his military background and history of entrepreneurship make him the strongest candidate to challenge Republicans. The message nearly got him the nomination last year.
“I’m quietly working as hard as I can doing the things I think will make a difference with voters,” Keen said.
Meanwhile, candidates have pointed out the numerous connections their Democratic opponents have to Republican power players.
The allegations particularly hounded Guzmán through the race. She most notably is married to former Rep. Rene Plasencia, an Orlando Republican, making her the sister-in-law to sitting GOP Rep. Susan Plasencia. The latter is expected to be a prime Democratic target next November after she flipped a plurality Democratic seat read by unseating former Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith.
Beyond that, Keen sent a fundraiser to supporters noting Guzmán briefly registered as a Republican while her husband served. That meant she wore a red jersey while Donald Trump was President. Bagga has also criticized Guzmán’s connections given that she’s promising to be a Democratic standard-bearer.
But Guzmán, who boasts a list of progressive endorsements, waves off the criticism. She’s been a registered Democrat well before this race, and the ability to work with the other side when Republicans hold a supermajority in the House will be an asset, she said.
“They are grasping at straws,” she said of her Democratic rivals. “They must have seen the same polling we did.”
But she’s also not the only one who has leaned on Republicans for political help. Bagga, when the Democratic Primary results were so tight, received legal advice from Josh Grosshans, a prominent Republican lawyer. Grosshans ultimately showed up at elections office to represent Bagga in the event of a recount, along with Democratic lawyer Melissa Battles, who represented Andrew Gillum in the 2018 Governor recount.
Ultimately, Bagga’s 0.6-point Primary victory was enough to avoid a recount. Bagga said he has been friends with Grosshans since high school, and Grosshans had offered to help. At the same time, Grosshans has served on a judicial nominating commission criticized for political recommendations on judgeships.
“The judiciary is too political,” Bagga said, noting he recently spoke at a hearing against consolidating judicial circuits. “There is too much influence of politics on that process.”
Keen’s campaign has worked with political consultant Zane Matter, who has worked with Republican and Democratic campaigns and currently is registered as a Republican. Indeed, Matter at one point worked with Rene Plasencia, Keen acknowledges.
But Keen connected with Matter through Barbara Cady, a Democrat who lost to Hawkins by 1 percentage point in 2020. “Barbara told me he did a great job,” Keen said.
As far as money, Bagga has spent the most, with his campaign dropping nearly $97,000. He raised more than $82,000 for the race and put in $22,500 out of pocket.
Guzmán has spent more than $63,000 from her campaign account, through Nov. 3, and raised about $72,000.
Keen has spent roughly $39,000, after raising about $24,000 and chipping in another $15,000 in candidate loans.
That doesn’t count political committee and outside spending.
Republicans in the race have eclipsed that spending, but whoever wins the nomination could enjoy a windfall in support for the Jan. 16 Special General Election.
At that point, Democrats see a real shot at flipping a red seat blue. A majority of voters in the district voted for Joe Biden for President in 2020 and Andrew Gillum for Governor in 2018. While Republicans won in routs in 2022, both parties will put effort into turnout at a point with no other major elections on the ballot.