TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida Democrats are facing a test to see whether anti-President Donald Trump politics will give them a boost ahead of a critical election year and perhaps signal a turnaround after two decades of Republican dominance in the Legislature.
They've made Trump a focal point in a special election Tuesday to replace a Miami-area Republican state senator who resigned after using racial slurs in front of black colleagues. The fact that the Republican in the race, state Rep. Jose Felix "Pepi" Diaz, was a contestant on Trump's reality show "The Apprentice" helps makes that connection easier.
"Trump's apprentice just got the GOP nomination," an arm of the state Democratic Party said in a fundraising email when Diaz won the primary in July. "Contribute now to fire Trump's apprentice."
If Democrat Annette Taddeo wins with less money against the stronger organization of the Republican Party during Tuesday's special election, it could be a sign of better times for Democrats. It would also test an anti-Trump strategy ahead of a 2018 election when the governor's seat and all three Cabinet positions are open and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is up for re-election.
"It's an interesting test. Does the Trump thing translate down the ballot in a nontypical election?" said Democratic political strategist Steve Schale. "If Democrats talk about getting back to a majority, you have to win races like this at some point."
Florida Democrats haven't controlled either branch of the Legislature since 1996. Democrats are pleading with donors to help flip a seat in a Senate where Republicans now have a 24-15 advantage. Even former Vice President Joe Biden has gotten involved, recording a robocall for Taddeo.
On paper, the district southwest of Miami leans Democratic. Democratic Hillary Clinton beat Trump last year, but Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also carried the district. And Frank Artiles, the Republican senator who resigned the seat earlier this year after using the N-word, beat then-Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard by 10 percentage points in 2016.
"I'm sure the Democrats are going to try to make it a referendum on Trump, but they're going to have to spend a lot of money to do it," said David Johnson, a Republican political consultant. "If Pepi wins, it will be credited largely to superior resources and organization."
Taddeo, 50, has a television ad that begins with her clicking off a television showing a clip of Trump "attacking" professional wrestling icon Vince McMahon. And in a speech to supporters two months ago, she said, "We have a president that we need to stand up (to) and not stand on the sidelines. We need to fight him every step of the way."
She has run for Congress twice, losing both times. She was also Democratic gubernatorial nominee Charlie Crist's running mate in 2014 in a race barely lost to Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
She said in a phone interview that Diaz, 37, wasn't shy about using his ties to Trump during the primary.
"When the president was insulting to Hispanics, instead of coming out and defending us, Representative Diaz actually joined his national Hispanic advisory council," she said.
Diaz dismissed the attacks from Taddeo and Democrats over Trump and said that being on "The Apprentice" in 2006 was a life-changing experience - even if he was one of the first contestants to get fired.
"Having a camera on 24 hours a day changed me. It made me really think about just how important it is to make the right the decision at all times," he said.
And while he said the race isn't about Trump, some voters still see it that way.
"I support Diaz because I support President Trump," said Republican Raul Musibay, 75.
Abel Lopez, a 65-year-old Democrat, agreed that the Trump factor was key.
"Anything I can do to help those against Trump," Lopez said, "I will do it."
AP writer Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.
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