Florida Republicans win recount, flip key Senate
seat in Miami
José Javier loss is a
stunning blow to Senate Democrats, who went into the election
cycle hoping to flip three seats to reach parity in the chamber
and ended up losing one seat
Courtesy of The Tampa Bay Times
Samantha J. Gross and Ana Ceballos
December 11, 2020
After three long days of a painstaking recount, early
results on Thursday showed Latinas for Trump co-founder Ileana Garcia
leading Democratic incumbent José Javier Rodríguez in the race for
Senate District 37 by a mere 34 votes.
In a video posted
shortly after the recount was done, Rodríguez conceded and
called for an investigation into the race, raising concerns
about the influence of a third-party candidate backed by
dark money who received more than 6,300 votes in an election
decided by a few dozen out of more than 215,000.
“Democracy requires transparency,” he said in the video. “In
order to achieve that, I believe this election requires a
full investigation so that those who may have violated the
law are held to account and so that such tactics are not
used in future elections.”
Rodríguez’s loss is a stunning blow to Senate Democrats, who
went into the election cycle hoping to flip three seats to
reach parity in the chamber and ended up losing one seat, a
balance that will make it tougher for them to influence the
GOP’s legislative agenda in the near future.
Democrats say the loss is an indictment of Florida’s weak
campaign finance laws that allow a shadow candidate and half
a million dollars in dark money to infiltrate the race,
siphoning votes all while technically following the rules.
“Our election laws are just not strong enough,” incoming
Senate minority leader Gary Farmer said Thursday.
Chair of the Miami-Dade Democrats and lawyer Steve
Simeonidis looks closely at a ballot during a manual recount for
Senate District 37 between Republican Ileana Garcia and Democrat
Jose Javier Rodriguez at the Miami-Dade Elections Department on
Thursday, November 12, 2020, in Miami, Florida.
Republicans, however, said Rodríguez’s loss should be
added to the “litany of introspection Florida Democrats need to explore
in the coming months” in the wake of stinging defeats this November,
including the loss of five seats in the Florida House.
The results will be certified by Secretary of State
Laurel Lee on Friday, which is the deadline for military and overseas
ballots to be counted.
A legislative tug-of-war
In 2016, Rodríguez unseated three-term Republican Sen. Miguel Díaz de la
Portilla, a member of Miami-Dade’s powerful Cuban-American political
family, with a three-point advantage. His victory in the redrawn seat
was made possible, in large part, to the heavy backing from the party
and wealthy donors and President Donald Trump’s poor showing in
At the time, Senate Republican leaders blamed Díaz de la Portilla’s
defeat on the unpopularity of Trump in the county, which he lost to
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by about 30 percentage
Trump is once again linked to the outcome of the race, but for the exact
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s poor showing in Miami-Dade
allowed Trump to cut into his 2016 margin by more than 20 points.
Biden’s lackluster performance let Trump make gains in Senate District
37 and opened the door for Garcia’s victory in the Hispanic-majority
Protecting Rodríguez’s seat was always a top priority for Senate
Democrats, who wanted to improve their chances of gaining ground in
The Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm
of Republican Senators, ended up outworking Senate Democrats. It ramped
up efforts ahead of the election, and spent $137,260 in October on
polling, consulting, research, staff and phone banking to help Garcia’s
candidacy, according to campaign finance records.
At the same time, the district swung 9.2 percent in Trump’s favor, with
the support of Cuban Americans and non-Cuban Hispanics. Biden still
defeated Trump in the district but by a much smaller margin than Clinton
No-party candidate is a factor
Much mystery remains around the network of unknown candidates with no
party affiliation (NPA) who ran in three competitive Senate districts,
most notably in Senate District 37, where the third-party candidate
netted more than 6,300 votes and likely influenced the outcome.
Voters in Senate Districts 9, 37 and 39 were targeted by similar-looking
political mail ads funded by a mystery donor that aimed to confuse
voters in an apparent effort to shave votes from Democratic candidates.
The mailers included messaging on issues that historically appeal to
Democrats, and advertised the little-known candidates who did not
actively campaign. The ads urged voters to “cut the strings” from
party-backed candidates and to vote for third-party candidates.
In Senate District 37, Alex Rodriguez, who shares a surname with the
Democrat incumbent, was promoted in dark money mailers as a candidate
who would “fight climate change,” “hold the police accountable” and
“guarantee a living wage.” He received about 3 percent of the vote.
Third-party or write-in candidates ran in eight of the 20 state Senate
races. On average, those candidates got about 2 percent of the vote,
making the vote count toward Alex Rodriguez well above average.
Both Rodríguez and Celso Alfonso, the no-party candidate who ran in
District 39, were registered Republicans when they voted in the 2018
midterm elections. Both qualified as candidates the same day, with
checks hand-delivered in Tallahassee and time-stamped within minutes of
Both candidates' email addresses are Gmail accounts with identical
patterns: first initial, last name, district number and “2020.” They
also have identical campaign finance records, both only reporting $2,000
loans to themselves, and used the money to pay for the $1,187.88 filing
fee required of no-party candidates for state Senate.
A WPLG Local 10 report found that Alex Rodriguez did not live at the
address he listed in his campaign filings.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s office, which prosecuted ex-lawmaker
Daisy Baez for lying about her place of residency on her voter
registration affidavit, said they were aware of the report. However,
they could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an ongoing
investigation, citing agency policy.
Rodríguez has blamed Senate Republican leaders for planting the
third-party candidate in the race, saying “Tallahassee Republicans ran
one unethical campaign with two candidates,” referring to Garcia and
Erin Isaac, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign
Committee and incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, specifically
said that the committee and Simpson were not involved in Alex
Rodriguez’s campaign, candidacy or mailers.
Much mystery remains about the donor who paid for the mailers. The
donor, Proclivity, had never made political contributions in Florida
until early October and has no paper trail, according to business and
tax records reviewed by the Times/Herald.
The donor poured $550,000 into two new political committees — Our
Florida PC and The Truth PC — which quickly used the money to buy what
is believed to be hundreds of thousands of mailed political
advertisements in support of the no-party candidates.
The committees' only registered agents are Sierra Olive and Hailey
DeFilippis, two young women with no known political experience. Both
women are from the Tampa Bay area, Olive from Palm Harbor and DeFilippis
Olive, 24, and DeFilippis, 25, both registered Republicans, have failed
to report campaign contributions and expenditures for the political
committees as required by state law, and could face fines, according to
a letter sent by the Florida Division of elections on Oct. 29. These
letters serve as further indication that the committees were not
actively engaged in campaign activity, other than to buy the mailers in
The $550,000 spent by the committees flowed to a company called Advance
Impression LLC, which was created in 2018 and is operated out of a
private residence in Clermont, according to state business records.
The company has no working phone and it had never been paid to do
political mailers by a candidate or political committee in Florida until
The Truth PC and Our Florida PC popped up and made the payments,
according to campaign finance records.
Additionally, The Truth PC listed its address as the address for the
printing company in expenditure records for the mailers. It is unclear
why the committee and the company share the same address, neither would
respond to requests for comment.
A search of both Olive and DeFilippis' names and home addresses in
campaign finance records showed no links to other campaign expenditures
or contributions this election cycle. Attempts to reach both women by
social media, email and phone calls have been unsuccessful.
Ileana Garcia was relatively unknown in political circles until 2016,
when she founded Latinas for Trump to counter antagonism against
Hispanic supporters of President Trump. Before then, she was a
television personality and self-described Sandra Bullock doppelgänger.
Shortly after Latinas for Trump got off the ground, the Trump campaign
hired her as Trump’s communication director to do Latino outreach.
Garcia then went on to work as deputy press secretary for the Department
of Homeland Security under the Trump administration.
According to her website, Garcia, who is Cuban-American was raised in
Allapattah and is a single mother of one. Her Twitter was recently wiped
and her Facebook deleted over the weekend. Before her Facebook was
deleted, she prematurely changed the page’s name to “Senator Ileana
In August 2019 Garcia joined Parler, a social media site that touts
“free expression without violence and no censorship” and displays posts
that contain far-right content, anti-semitism and conspiracy theories.
Her account is private.
Garcia, 50, never granted an interview to the Miami Herald before or
after the election. Erin Issac, a spokeswoman for Senate Republican
campaigns, stonewalled all attempts to reach her, and provided
statements on her behalf that broadly addressed the issues she would
prioritize if elected.
According to one statement, Garcia has a few broad legislative
priorities. Those include the following, working with Democrats to “help
end COVID,” fix the state’s unemployment system, improve the economy,
increase funding for Miami-Dade’s public school and school choice
options, and “work to make healthcare truly affordable by expanding
access to quality healthcare.”
The statement added that she wanted to defeat Rodriguez because he had a
“far-left agenda,” which she broadly characterized as one that would
“expand the role of government, increase taxes and deny parents the
opportunity to decide the best education for their children.”
While in the Legislature, Rodríguez pushed climate change legislation
and often filed bills to protect tenants in foreclosure and reform condo
The League of Conservation voters, an environmental advocacy group that
worked with Rodríguez on legislation and reliably backed his campaigns,
called the loss “devastating.”
Rodríguez campaigned on promises to keep pushing for measures that
address climate change, including how it impacts infrastructure and
public health in the region. It was supposed to be a continuation of
what he had been preaching since he was elected four years ago.
Rodríguez did not only talk about it — he wore it. For three legislative
sessions in a row, he wore rubber boots with the slogan ActOnClimateFl
to raise awareness about the threats climate change pose to the state.
During this year’s legislative session, Rodríguez achieved part of that
slogan. Along with state Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, Rodríguez
championed legislation that explicitly acknowledges climate change’s
threats to the state and requires state-financed projects on the coast
to take sea level rise into account before starting to build a
DeSantis signed the bill into law in June, and it went into effect July
“Not many people in the whole state understand climate change issues
like Senator Rodríguez,” said Jonathan Webber, the deputy director of
the League of Conservation Voters.
“Those are going to be some big galoshes to fill.”