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

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Democrat Tom Keen flipped what had been a Republican seat in Central Florida in a special election held Tuesday for state House District 35.

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

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 split of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

The election was considered a bellwether 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.

Keen canvassed with local Democratic stars U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost and state Rep. Anna Eskamani and launched an ad targeting the GOP on abortion rights.

Booth 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 were also sent to Democrats earlier this month 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 “Florida Committee for Progressive Values” listed Austin Hurst of Riverlake Boulevard in Bartow, Polk County, as its registered agent, chair and treasurer. According to elections 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.

The candidates, including Jestine Iannotti, who ran for Senate in Seminole County, did not campaign but were promoted by a deluge of ads coordinated by GOP operatives, apparently in an attempt to siphon votes away from the Democrats in each race.

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 for after the Iowa Republican presidential caucuses on Monday, so that Democrats potentially flipping the seat 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 seat will be up again in November for a full two-year term.