Voters in HD 35 will choose Erika Booth or Tom Keen to fill House’s only vacant seat

keen booth
Both parties have invested heavily in the Central Florida battleground district.

Voters Tuesday will decide a critical Special Election and fill the only vacancy in the House. Republican Erika Booth and Democrat Tom Keen will battle for votes to determine who represents House District 35.

The election will decide who fills a House seat vacated by Fred Hawkins, a St. Cloud Republican recently hired as South Florida State College President. Hawkins won the district in 2022 by 10 percentage points. But two years before that, voters in the district favored Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential Election by 5 points.

While Speaker Paul Renner has committed to swearing in the new member immediately, regardless of the election outcome, the winner will arrive in Tallahassee more than a week into the Legislative Session. That could severely affect the role they may plan in crafting legislation during their first stint in Tallahassee, but long-term, a victory could mean an extended tenure and outsized influence for a redshirt freshman.

But more immediately, the race in a battleground district will serve as a show of strength for whichever political party prevails. Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried and Republican Party of Florida Chair Evan Power both helped out at public campaign events this weekend advocating for their side.

Privately, both sides voice a belief they have deployed resources into the field to secure a close but clear win. The election won’t have an enormous impact on the balance of power in the House, where Republicans already hold an supermajority with 84 seats. But the race could set the tone during the first Presidential Election year in decades when Florida isn’t widely considered the nation’s most valuable swing state.

“Erika is continuing to do what she’s done from Day 1, bringing her message directly to voters and making sure they turn out and vote,” said political consultant Anthony Pedicini. “She’s the only candidate capable of reining in insurance rates, bringing money home to fix local traffic issues and protecting parents’ rights in education.”

Book, an Osceola School Board member, is a tested candidate who won her current office in 2022. She easily won a Republican Primary in November, and has stressed her background as a classroom teacher. She’s married to County Commissioner Ricky Booth, bringing more recognition to the ballot.

Keen, an aerospace engineer, has also campaigned before, but lost the Democratic nomination in 2022 by just 57 votes. In November, he pulled an upset victory in the Democratic Primary, beating two candidates who outraised him. Now he’s hoping to flip a district from red to blue.

On the trail, the broader stakes of the race have been clear.

“I fought for our country for 21 years as a Naval Flight Officer,” Keen said. “I will fight for my fellow neighbors in District 35 when I get to Tallahassee. I filed to run in this race in May 2023 because the residents of District 35 deserve better representation in Tallahassee.”

A look at registration rolls shows the race as a true battleground, more so after both parties placed a priority on voter registration and vote-by-mail requests. As of the Dec. 18 registration deadline to vote in this race, the 37,389 registered Democrats barely outnumber 37,155 registered Republicans. Voters with no party affiliation outnumber both groups, with 37,786 registered, though turnout is traditionally low among independents in unusually timed races, and this election appears to be no exception.

Ultimately, the election is coming down to get-out-the-vote efforts, an especially critical facet of campaigning during a Special Election. Moreover, the race takes place a day after the high-profile Iowa caucuses, and the General Election spanned a period of normal political quiet covering Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

A final report after Early Voting concluded this weekend shows more registered Democrats than Republicans had voted ahead of the Special Election date itself. Through Sunday, 6,020 Democrats had cast their ballots either through early voting or through the mail. By comparison, 5,402 Republicans had done the same. Another 2,295 voters with no party affiliation had voted.

But especially in recent election cycles, Republican voters have far outpaced voters on Election Day. Both sides anticipate more registered Republicans going to polls today.

The campaign has seen its share of controversy. Texts were sent out, credited to the Committee for Progressive Values, attacking Keen for saying he supported parental rights during the Democratic Primary and casting that as support for the Gov. Ron DeSantis-backed “Parental Rights in Education” bill officially run under that name.

Keen calls the bill and the text messages “political stunts,” and said, “every teacher in Florida is sick and tired of politics invading our classrooms.”

The political committee, according to campaign records, lists Pedicini as a registered agent. But it hasn’t reported any political activity since 2016, and Pedicini said it has been inactive for years.

Both have tackled issues like rising insurance rates that impact Florida specifically. But both candidates have also spoken to the larger partisan stakes in the election.

In mailers and campaign rhetoric, Booth has often directed her messages to unpopular policies emanating from the Biden White House

“The southern border is creating both national and local security concerns that must be addressed,” Booth posted on her Facebook page.

“As a mother of three, I worry about what the Biden Administration’s open border policy and inaction means for the future security of our nation. The stranglehold Drug Cartels hold on border crossings and the amount of drugs that enter into our local community as a result of uninterrupted streams of unknown, unvetted and unchecked illegal aliens crossing into our Country cannot even be contemplated.”

Meanwhile, Keen has stressed the stakes of delivering a blow to DeSantis, a presidential candidate, and an aggressively conservative agenda advanced under his watch.

“This is about pushing back against extremist policies and winning more seats to foster inclusive and democratic governance,” he said.

“Our community faces pressing challenges. From the crippling property insurance crisis to defending reproductive freedom, I am committed to addressing these issues head-on. The residents of District 35, and indeed all of Florida, deserve representation that genuinely advocates for their needs and interests. We need practical solutions, not political distractions.”

The Republican candidate has certainly spent more on the race. Booth’s campaign, through Jan. 11, collected nearly $323,000 dollars and spent about $260,000 before the final push. Keen’s campaign collected significantly less, about $121,000, and deployed $104,000 through the last full week of campaigning.

But the parties have upped spending as well. The Florida House Democratic Campaign Committee spent upward of $541,000 from the Democratic Primary through the Jan. 11 reporting deadline. That’s far more than the $207,000 spent in the same time by the Florida House Republican Campaign Committee.

Now voters will have the final say on who fills the seat, and Tallahassee shouldn’t have to wait long tonight to know the winner. Only two counties will tally votes, Orange and Osceola, and this race is the only one on the ballot.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].


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