Democrats are voicing frustration with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) over the special election for the late Rep. Alcee Hastings’s (D-Fla.) seat.
Hastings, who represented a majority Black district in South Florida for nearly three decades, died early this month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Florida law gives DeSantis broad authority to set a date for the special election to replace him, but he has so far remained silent on when voters can expect to choose their next representative.
Given Democrats’ narrow House majority, the vacancy in Florida’s 20th Congressional District stands to have a potentially significant impact on the party’s ability to move its agenda forward in Congress, and some fear that DeSantis could seek to complicate Democrats’ legislative efforts by leaving the seat vacant for months.
“It’s really annoying,” said Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief, who is running for Hastings’s seat. “It’s unfair to leave the residents of the 20th District without a congressperson and without representation.”
Sharief said that DeSantis should move quickly to fill Hastings’s seat, suggesting that a primary could be held in August with the general election taking place on Nov. 2, which would coincide with several other elections across the country.
But DeSantis, an arch-conservative and close ally of former President Trump, has not so much as hinted at when he could call a special election, stirring speculation among Democrats that he may be trying to keep the seat open for as long as possible. DeSantis’s office did not respond to an email seeking comment on the special election.
“That’s been at the top of everybody’s mind,” Sharief said. “And based on the silence, I’m kind of leaning in that direction — that maybe this is a political opportunity for the Republicans to continue to stall on legislation that needs to go through.”
The top elections officials in South Florida have already said they want DeSantis to hold the special election sooner rather than later.
Wendy Link, the supervisor of elections in Palm Beach County, proposed that the governor call a primary on Sept. 14 with a general election on Nov. 9, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel first reported last week. Meanwhile, Joe Scott, the Broward County supervisor of elections, has pitched a primary on Nov. 2 with the general election taking place on Jan. 11.
Scott has also dispatched a lobbyist to push DeSantis to call the special election for Hastings’s seat.
Hastings’s death marks the first vacancy in Florida’s House delegation since DeSantis took office. The last time was in 2013 with the passing of longtime GOP Rep. C.W. Bill Young. Then-Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) moved quickly to set the special election at the time, signing an executive order laying out the schedule less than two weeks after Young died.
Federal election rules give states the power to set their own procedures for filling vacant congressional seats. While some states have their own rules governing when those vacancies should be filled, Florida law says only that the governor has the ability to call special elections for vacant seats, omitting a clear timeline for the process.
A Democratic-backed effort in the Republican-controlled legislature to require the governor to set a special election date within 14 days of a vacancy was shot down last week in a floor vote.
Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida, said that DeSantis’s silence on the special election so far “tracks with the disturbing patterns of behavior that we’ve seen from this governor.”
“He’s just a very punitive guy with an authoritarian streak and I wouldn’t put it past him to slow-walk it,” Kennedy said. “Even if that’s not the intention, the failure to act and schedule this leaves the people in the district without a representative. He’s forfeiting responsibility and denying representation.”
Democrats are eager to find a replacement for Hastings, especially given their narrow six-seat majority in the House. Florida’s 20th District is considered safe territory for Democrats, meaning that the party is virtually assured to keep control of the seat in a special election.
Earlier this month, four Democratic members of Florida’s House delegation called on DeSantis during a video news conference to immediately set a date for a special election to fill their late colleague’s seat.
“Our concern is that there is such a close majority of Democrats in the House that any stalling, any less Democrats that are there — and stalling makes it more difficult to for us to get what we think is a very commonsense agenda through,” Rep. Lois Frankel (D) said at the time. She was joined by Reps. Charlie Crist (D), Ted Deutch (D) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D).
So far, only one Republican has announced a bid for Hastings’s seat: Greg Musselwhite, who previously sought the seat in the 2020 elections. Meanwhile, more than a dozen Democrats are either weighing campaigns or have already jumped into the race, including Sharief, state House Minority Leader Bobby DuBose and state Sen. Perry Thurston.
Barry Edwards, a lecturer in political science at the University of Central Florida, said that the current delay in setting the special election for Hastings’s seat may be more practical than political.
The Republican-controlled state legislature is scrambling to finish work on new voting-related measures before its session ends on April 30. The measures seek to impose stricter vote-by-mail regulations and new restrictions on ballot drop boxes.
Edwards said that DeSantis and Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee (R) may be waiting to see what eventually comes out of the state legislature.
“The main consideration has to be a practical one about voting rights and the procedures for voting. You have to think about that to see what the procedures are going to be,” Edwards said. “What’s going to be required of a voter to obtain a mail-in ballot? Will they get an application automatically or have to ask for one? What ID requirements are they expected to satisfy when voting by mail?”
Still, given the strong Democratic advantage in Florida’s 20th District, DeSantis has little political incentive to fill the seat quickly, Edwards said.
“This seat is going to be won by a Democrat,” he said. “There’s not much political advantage for DeSantis to rush the new representative into office.”