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Democrat Keen wins state House 35 special election over GOP’s Booth

In a race seen as a bellwether for Democratic chances in November, Democrat Tom Keen flipped what had been a Republican state House seat in Central Florida in a special election held Tuesday.

Keen, a Navy flight officer who works in the aerospace training and simulation industry, defeated Republican Erika Booth, a teacher and member of the Osceola School Board. Unofficial totals for the District 35 seat had Keen with 51.3% of the vote to Booth’s 48.7%.

“A huge THANK YOU to all our supporters, volunteers, and voters who believed in our vision for a better, brighter District 35,” Keen wrote on social media. “Your dedication, hard work, and votes have brought us to this incredible moment.”

Keen, who made abortion rights and property insurance key issues in the race, got between 65% to 70% of nonpartisan, or NPA, voters to make up for Republicans turning out in larger numbers than Democrats, said Matt Isbell, a Democratic elections analyst.

“What actually clinched the win for Democrats was this massive margin with NPAs and perhaps some Republican moderates as well,” Isbell said. “If anything, this should be concerning for the GOP because it indicates a voter anger that maybe they have not understood.”

The special election for the district in eastern Orange and Osceola counties was triggered when former Republican state Rep. Fred Hawkins resigned last year to become president of South Florida State College in Highlands County.

The district has an almost even collection of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The election was considered a test of whether Florida Democrats will be more competitive in 2024 following their blowout loss to Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022, which swept in a GOP supermajority in both houses of the Legislature.

“This proves that Democrats can win close races in the Sunshine State,” said state House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, in a statement. “Florida is worth fighting for … Our work together has just begun.”

Keen canvassed with local Democratic stars U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost and state Rep. Anna Eskamani, launched an ad targeting the GOP on abortion rights and mailed out flyers attacking Republicans on the property insurance crisis.

Booth, whose website stated that she would “protect our children from indoctrination” and crack down on illegal immigration, was backed by a state GOP campaign slamming Keen as a “radical,” including a website and television ads. Booth did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

Mysterious text messages also were sent to Democrats from a supposed progressive group claiming Keen agreed with DeSantis on the controversial Parental Rights in Education Act, called ‘don’t say gay’ by its opponents. Keen has been a vocal critic of the law.

The group, Florida Committee for Progressive Values, listed Austin Hurst of Riverlake Boulevard in Bartow, Polk County, as its registered agent, chair and treasurer. According to state records, a Michael Austin Hurst is registered at that address as a Republican.

The Keen campaign compared the texts to the “ghost candidate” scandal of 2020, which involved three independent candidates who ran for competitive state Senate seats.

Candidates of both parties criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis for scheduling the special election 10 days into the 2024 legislative session, preventing the winner from attending key meetings and hearings and from introducing new bills. Another open seat in South Florida was filled in a special election in December.

Democrats claimed DeSantis set the election after the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses on Monday so if Democrats flipped the seat it would not embarrass him on the campaign trail.

DeSantis came in a distant second to former President Donald Trump in Iowa, losing by nearly 30 points, and trails both Trump and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in polling for the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 23.

The District 35 seat will be up again in November for a full two-year term.

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