Florida’s Upcoming Race-Tested Special Election

The March 11 Florida race for an empty congressional seat will be a sign of the political and racial temperatures in the state.

By Brentin Mock Jan 22, 2014

In this year’s pivotal midterm congressional election season, when Republicans and Democrats will try their hardest to hold on to the House and Senate respectively, one of the more interesting races comes early. The outcome of the race for Florida’s 13th congressional district, which encompases St. Petersburg, will signal what the political and racial temperatures are in Trayvon Martin’s state, possibly showing which way the state will swing in the upcoming governor’s race, and maybe even the 2016 presidential race.

The Democrat in the race, Alex Sink, was narrowly defeated when she ran for governor in 2010 by the guy who’s in office now, Rick Scott, who we know helped launch an assault on voting rights, including voter purges, cuts to early voting and rolling back felony disenfranchisement reforms implemented by predecessor Charlie Crist. Scott has also stood for Stand Your Ground laws, drug-testing welfare recipients and deflating Obama’s Affordable Care Act at all costs. Had Sink scored just 1 percent more of the votes, Florida might have been a much different place for people of color and low income.

But Sink pissed off a lot of black voters in that race by not showing up at events and faling to invest any campaign funds in organizations that galvanize voters of color to the polls. Such oversights caused the prominent Miami NAACP leader Bishop Victor Curry to declare that he would not support her, urging other black voters to withdraw support as well. The question facing Sink today is whether she’ll make the mistake of taking voters of color for granted again.

Sink is currently running for the congressional seat once held by the deceased Bill Young, who was the longest serving Republican in Congress before he died last October. The Republican running in his wake is a lobbyist named David Jolly who bends much farther to the right than the moderate Young, who he used to work for. Jolly wants to eliminate Obamacare and opposes any path to citizenship for immigrants.

Though Obama won this district in his last two outings, it’s still considered a toss-up swing district. And race will be a factor, particularly with Florida having one of the largest Latino populations in the nation, and growing. These are voters the Republican Party have rendered invisible in the past, but this race will give us a sense of how excited black and brown voters are about Sink, given her past, and also how serious Republicans are about attracting people of color. Early returns show that very little has changed for the GOP on this front. And yet local newspapers expect race to play a prominent role in this matchup.

Whether this seat remains red or blue makes a difference also in how key legislation is handled this year, particularly bills on immigration reform, voting rights, racial profiling, criminal justice reform and federal programs that might address economic inequality. How people in this district vote will also give us a sense of which way the state may swing in the gubernatorial race, which pits Scott against former governor Crist, who switched parties from Republican to Democrat.

On a larger scale, Florida is one of those states often mentioned in discussions about presidential races — "as [enter state’s name here] goes, so goes the nation" — and whoever wins the Sunshine State historically is a lock-in for the White House. Its 29 electoral votes makes it a must-win in every presidential contest. And given the electoral college count is population based, Florida’s Latino-fueled perennial population surges make it a virtual certainty that Florida will continue to be a mandatory battleground deep into the future.

Right now Alex Sink is crushing her GOP opponent in fundraising, though he emerged only last week as winner of the January 15 primary (Sink was unopposed). However, the next six weeks will be more of a test of whether she has learned how to connect with voters of color.