“GOP will win Senate District 40 race” said the headline in the Tampa Bay Times.

“I don’t see Taddeo beating Diaz…  Until [Democrats] prove they can win these kind of seats, it is advantage GOP.” Said one Florida politico.  “The problem for Democrats in the SD40 Special is that the electorate that will show up will be disproportionately older Cubans compared to normal midterms or presidential cycles. This is a group that still votes GOP down ballot and has no trouble splitting their ticket.” Said another.

One prominent Florida political commentator called ALG client and now Senator-elect Annette Taddeo the worst candidate on the Florida Democrats’ bench.

Such was the conventional wisdom going into the special election in Florida’s 40th state Senate district. The district, located entirely in Miami-Dade County, backed Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election by 17 points, while backing Republican Marco Rubio in the US Senate race by 3 points. In the 2016 state Senate race, Republican Frank Artiles won by 10 points. Similar to other heavily Cuban-American communities in the Miami area it has trended toward the Democrats in national elections, while continuing to have a consistent, but waning, GOP lean in local races.

After Senator Artiles was forced to resign for a racial epithet-filled and alcohol-fueled tirade at a Tallahassee bar, a special election was called to fill the seat. It was widely believed that the Florida Republican Party’s heavy spending advantage, combined with an older, more Cuban-American, and more Republican electorate would keep this seat in GOP hands. Indeed, that Taddeo campaign raised around $330,000 to Jose Felix Diaz’s nearly $1,500,000. But when the votes were counted, Democrat Annette Taddeo defeated Republican Jose Felix Diaz, 51% to 47%.

ALG’s final poll of the race showed Taddeo up by 3 points, something we are quite proud of in notoriously difficult-to-poll Miami-Dade County. While every race is different, the campaign holds some important lessons for Democrats around the country:

  1.      Don’t forget the importance of positive messaging (something that all too often gets lost during campaigns): In our polling, the importance of defining Taddeo in a positive way came through – it would not be enough to disqualify Diaz or count on the damage Trump has done to the Republican brand with Miami’s Hispanic voters to carry us across the finish line. Further, positive messaging was key for our get out the vote strategy: polling data among registered Democrats and the district’s left-leaning NPA voters showed that these voters needed someone to vote for – not because they would vote for the Republican candidate, but without knowing why to vote Taddeo they would either not vote at all, or be open to casting a 3rd party protest vote.

The need for positive communications became even more important in the wake of Hurricane Irma, which impacted large parts of SD-40. We knew that after such a disruptive natural disaster voters would be  tuning out this race. The campaign was in a partial reset as evacuees returned and power was restored. There was also a feeling on the ground that voters were in no mood for the same negative ads. Post-Irma, the campaign deftly re-oriented its television, mail, and digital strategy to reflect more positively, with the candidate direct-t0-camera.

  1.      Donald Trump can be very helpful, especially with the base, but he is not enough on his own: Trump was a toxic figure in the district, and Diaz’s personal connection to Trump was a problem for him, but it was also clear that Trump would not be enough on his own. Diaz was personally most-vulnerable on healthcare and middle class economic issues – specifically his support of Trumpcare, his votes to increase property insurance rates, and votes to shift the tax burden off the wealthy and to middle class homeowners. The campaign focused on those kitchen table, economic concerns and used Trump to anchor this policy case against him: his relationship with Trump made it plausible that he was out to enrich the wealthy and corporations at the expense of middle class Floridians and supportive of Trumpcare. Ultimately, Trump played an important role in our messaging, but the fact that Diaz had a record of hurting middle class Floridians mattered more and in this race, we never lost sight of that balance.

In particular, Trump was most helpful in engaging Democratic base voters, and Taddeo being someone who would stand up to Trump’s agenda played an important role in our targeted digital and mail campaigns. Our initial polling here oversampled n=100 expansion Democrats and registered No Party Voters who lean Democratic. We saw the impact of Trump with these voters – along with concerns about Diaz’s personal connection to the President. In the end, Florida Senate Democrats’ inexpensive, in-house mail program allowed them to touch every Democratic voter in SD-40 multiple times, and played a major role in getting Taddeo the Democratic turnout she needed.

  1.      Do not neglect field – Democrats are enthusiastic, and can be activated by a robust field program: Much of the presumed GOP advantage going into the race centered on there being more Republican “super voters” in SD-40, as well as the recent history of Democrats not turning out in off-year, low turnout races. In addition to a large mail program, and digital programs from both the Florida Democratic Party and Priorities USA, there was a significant field effort in this race: beginning in August the field team knocked on over 100,000 doors, made tens of thousands of phone contacts, and generated thousands of new vote by mail requests among Democratic voters. This effort was impressive on its own, but those numbers were achieved despite the program shut down for roughly 10 days due to Hurricane Irma.

Speaking of Irma, after the hurricane hit South Florida, there was even more pessimism about Democrats’ chances to get their voters out and win the race. Governor Rick Scott denied a request by Democrats and other progressive groups to delay the election 2 weeks.  Indeed, the heavily African American and Democratic Richmond Heights had the longest power outage of any area in the district, complicating turnout efforts there. Still, the field and GOTV programs blew their goals out of the water, and through their efforts Taddeo was able to win the Election Day vote by 19 points – breaking the recent trend of Democrats relying on early voting and then getting crushed on Election Day.

All in all, this was one of the strongest legislative campaign efforts in recent history for Florida Democrats. With well over $7 million spent between the two sides, this race was a priority for each party.  Democrats now hold the most seats in the Florida Senate since the late 90s and are poised to compete in more Senate races in 2018.

In SD-40, the combination of a good candidate, the right message to each universe of voters, and a real commitment to the field yielded a major win for Democrats in the state. Hopefully, this is the start of a great cycle for Democratic legislative candidates in Florida and around the country.