TALLAHASSEE, Fla. >> President Donald Trump has helped Democrats win an improbable victory in Florida, taking a state Senate seat away from the Republicans who have dominated state politics for two decades.
Trump was a focal point in last week’s special election, which sends Annette Taddeo to Tallahassee as the first Latina Democrat in the Florida Senate.
“Thank you for everything you did to help us flip this seat. This is your victory,” she told supporters after beating Jose Felix “Pepi” Diaz by nearly 4 percentage points.
Democrats latched on to the fact Diaz had been a contestant on Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice” before becoming a state representative. During the campaign, Diaz deleted a selfie he had tweeted of himself with Trump just before the inauguration, saying the photo had become a distraction.
Most political observers thought Diaz would win despite Trump’s negatives. Just last year, a sitting Democratic senator was trounced by 10 percentage points by Republican Frank Artiles. But Artiles resigned only months later, after using the N-word in front of two black colleagues, and Taddeo capitalized on growing anti-Trump sentiment.
“Annette will fight against the racist Trump policies so other families have the same opportunities to live the American Dream,” said one campaign flier posted by Taddeo, a Colombian-American who started a translation business, married Miami psychologist Eric Goldstein and became chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
Diaz far outspent Taddeo and had the benefit of a better-organized state Republican Party. But Democrats made Trump a talking point in advertising, speeches and fundraising campaigns, and grassroots efforts included sending handwritten cards to fellow voters to encourage turnout.
“I’m very uncomfortable with Mr. Trump and anyone who’s on his coattails, I’m heading the other way,” said Michelle Kolodny, a 65-year-old Democrat who said she voted in for Taddeo in part because she didn’t like Diaz’s ties to Trump. “All of his advertising and his campaigning had Trump plastered all over it.”
Democrats have struggled in special legislative elections, and Tuesday’s vote probably would have gone unnoticed if the state Democratic Party hadn’t focused so heavily on an anti-Trump strategy.
“Democrats made it a proxy war, and we tried to make it about this election,” Diaz said. “That wasn’t the strategy on the other side and ultimately it paid off for them.”
Democratic strategist Christian Ulvert said Taddeo presented a message of unity at a time when voters are upset about the divisiveness of politics Trump represents.
“President Trump and the White House have created a high level of anxiety among voters,” Ulvert said. “She tapped into that anxiety.”
A general disgust with politics cost the Republicans Peggy Vazquez’ vote. She said she doesn’t regret voting for Trump last year, but feels like politics haven’t gotten any better since he became president.
“It’s never been so bad,” said Vazquez, who voted for a fringe candidate instead. “I wish he would now just shut his mouth. He just didn’t have any finesse.”