In a race viewed as a litmus test of President Donald Trump and Florida Democrats' ability to make gains in local and statewide elections next year, Miami businesswoman Annette Taddeo coasted to victory Tuesday in a race to replace a disgraced former state senator.
The Colombia-born Democrat, who has never held public office, defeated former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Republican who stepped down from his House seat to run for the Senate.
While Taddeo trailed Diaz in mail-in ballots, she made up the difference on Election Day and in early voting, winning by a decisive 3.7 percentage-point margin, according to results posted on the Miami-Dade County elections office website.
“I told you it was a people-powered (campaign). I meant it. It really was,” Taddeo told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Tuesday night.
Taddeo, 50, said she was excited and humbled by the win.
“I'm up for the challenge and just ready to start. I'm ready to go to Tallahassee,” she said.
Taddeo's victory in Senate District 40 is certain to bolster the hopes of Democrats, who have been outnumbered by a 24-15 margin in the state Senate, as they combat Republicans in local and statewide races next year.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel called Taddeo's triumph “a win for all of Florida.”
“Annette will head to Tallahassee ready to fight for higher paying jobs, affordable health care and fully funded public schools. Democrats across the state are energized and mobilizing to flip Florida blue. After nearly 20 years of harmful GOP policies, voters are ready for a better deal,” he said in a statement.
Taddeo will replace former state Sen. Frank Artiles, a Republican who resigned after a profanity-laced and racially tinged outburst at a private club near the Capitol in the midst of this spring's legislative session.
Taddeo ran unsuccessfully twice for Congress, most recently last year, and was U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist's running mate in his failed 2014 attempt to recapture his old job as governor.
She was outgunned financially by Diaz, who had the backing of GOP Senate leaders. The abbreviated contest carried a whopping price tag of more than $2 million, including spending by the candidates and political committees affiliated with the Senate hopefuls.
With all precincts reporting Tuesday night, Taddeo captured 50.95 percent of the vote, while Diaz received 47.21 percent and no-party candidate Christian “He-Man” Schlaerth got 1.84 percent, the elections office website said.
Around noon Tuesday, Diaz, a Cuban-American known throughout the district and the Capitol as “Pepi,” was buoyed by news that mail-in ballots received over the weekend increased a Republican turnout edge by several thousand votes, undoing gains by Democrats who had closed the gap late last week. Of more than 27,000 mail-in ballots, Diaz wound up with a more than 2,000-ballot lead over Taddeo, according to the elections office website.
But Taddeo --- who nailed down the endorsement of former Vice President Joe Biden late last week --- more than compensated for the mail-in ballot edge, capturing more than double the number of votes garnered by Diaz in early voting and topping the Republican by more than 2,000 votes cast on Election Day.
Taddeo's supporters launched a massive get-out-the-vote effort, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which knocked out power to much of the district and left many households in the dark even as early voting began two weeks ago.
“We are still calling. We are still knocking. And we will be all the way `til like 30 minutes before the polls close,” she told the News Service earlier Tuesday.
The abbreviated and heated contest was characteristic of Miami-Dade's brand of rough-and-tumble politics.
Supporters of Diaz painted Taddeo as a communist sympathizer, linking her with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, an unfounded accusation she characterized as “painful.” The FARC kidnapped Taddeo's father, who fought in World War II for the U.S., prompting her family to flee Columbia when she was a child.
Taddeo and her backers, meanwhile, portrayed Diaz as a lobbyist “insider” and repeatedly tied the Republican to Trump. Diaz once appeared on Trump's television show, “The Apprentice,” and endorsed the president.
The swing district, redrawn as a result of a redistricting process that took effect with last year's elections, is almost evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and independents, with Democratic having a slight voter-registration edge.
Hispanics make up 69 percent of the district's voting-age population, whites another 20 percent and blacks comprise about 7 percent, according to the latest Census data. The Democratic-leaning district supported Hillary Clinton last year by more than 17 percentage points over Trump.
While many of the district's older Cuban-American voters continue to support Trump, the president remains unpopular with younger Cuban-Americans and other Latinos, such as those from Taddeo's country of origin, Colombia.
Many Hispanic voters are especially unhappy about Trump's decision to undo an Obama-era policy that would protect from deportation undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, known as “Dreamers.”
National Democrats celebrated Taddeo's victory, pointing to it as an indictment of Trump.
"This crucial win tonight is a great representation of Democrats' winning momentum and increased engagement in the Trump era,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Executive Director Jessica Post said in a statement Tuesday night.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Taddeo stood outside the Kings Creek Village Recreational Center as a steady stream of voters entered the poolside voting site, nearly all of them pledging to cast their ballots for the Democrat.
“Thank you for voting,” she said, as voters stopped to take selfies with the candidate.
Taddeo said she was 30 minutes late arriving at the precinct because voters were calling her cell phone --- listed on campaign materials ---to find out where to vote.
Among the information-seekers were Colombian-American voters, many of whom were casting ballots for the first time in a special election.
“Obviously, it's going to be very close so it's nice to see. Probably, with some of them, neither side has communicated with because they're not the typical voters, especially in a special election. So that's good,” Taddeo, 50, told The News Service.
She said Colombians were especially motivated to vote for her because of the FARC attack ads, which she said her fellow countrymen and women took “very personally because we've all been through that experience.”
Florida Democrats had asked Scott to postpone Tuesday's election for two weeks after Hurricane Irma wiped out power to much of the region. Scott refused.
On Tuesday, the Florida Democratic Party asked Gov. Rick Scott to extend voting hours for two hours at three polling places in the Richmond Heights area of the district --- a Democratic stronghold --- because voters were unable to access the precincts early in the day because of a shooting in the area, according to the request by Bittel.
The governor refused the request, according to Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis.
“Department of State has been in contact with local, independent elections officials in Miami-Dade who have reported no issues. We will not be granting this request,” Lewis said in an email about an hour before polls were scheduled to close at 7 pm.