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Recount likely in Democratic primary for Florida's 20th Congressional District

Just 12 votes separate Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, Dale Holness
Dale Holness and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick top vote-getters in Democratic primary
Posted at 12:21 PM, Nov 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-03 12:44:15-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The Democratic primary in a special election to determine who will fill the seat left vacant after the death of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., remained too close to call Wednesday.

A recount is likely on the Democratic side between top vote-getters Dale Holness and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick after Tuesday's special primary election for Florida's 20th Congressional District.

The candidates are vying to fill the late congressman's seat. Hastings, who was first elected to Congress in 1992, died of pancreatic cancer in April.

Jason Mariner is the projected winner of the Republican primary, defeating Greg Musselwhite, who unsuccessfully challenged Hastings in the 2020 general election.

Why a recount?

Under state law, races that are within a vote margin of 0.5 percentage points or less trigger an automatic machine recount. Any margin of 0.25 points or less requires a hand recount.

As of Wednesday morning, Holness had 11,644 votes to Cherfilus-McCormick's 11,632 -- a difference of just 12 votes -- in unofficial results posted on the election websites of Broward and Palm Beach counties.

None of the other nine Democrats in the race meet the criteria for a recount, so it will come down to Holness, a Broward County commissioner and former mayor who was once endorsed by Hastings, or Cherfilus-McCormick, the CEO of Trinity Health Care Services.

There will not be a runoff, so the winner of the primary -- no matter how narrow the margin -- will take on Mariner in the Jan. 11 general election.

Democrats for the win?

The uncertainty surrounding the Democratic nominee is significant given the district's political leanings.

Florida's 20th Congressional District is more than 61% Democratic and about 13% Republican.

Hastings earned 78.7% of the vote in the 2020 general election to defeat Musselwhite.

Alcee Hastings in December 2019
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., speaks during a House Rules Committee hearing on the impeachment against President Donald Trump, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Headed into Election Day, nearly 33,000 Democrats and more than 4,000 Republicans out of the more than 345,000 eligible primary voters had already cast their ballots during early voting.

However, voter turnout was low at about 16%.

The eventual winner will almost certainly go on to represent the district in Congress.

Who are the Democrats?

Democratic voter Patricia Robinson told the Associated Press that, because the field was so large, it was a difficult choice. She voted for Holness because she felt he will be more pragmatic in what he can achieve in a divided Congress.

Dale Holness poses for photograph with volunteers
Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness poses for a photograph with volunteers while waiting for the results of the Democratic primary in Florida's 20th Congressional District.

"We really need true servants with realistic goals for the people to make things better for this country," she said.

Cherfilus-McCormick's platform included her proposed People's Prosperity Plan, which would provide permanent $1,000 economic recovery checks for anyone 18 or older who makes less than $75,000 annually.

"What we're starting to see is that the community is struggling, and we do need some kind of economic relief, economic stimulus, and that was the message that we were putting forth," Cherfilus-McCormick told WPLG. "If we're going to be taxing, why not tax and spend in the communities that need it?"

Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick speaks about close primary election
"If we're going to be taxing, why not tax and spend in the communities that need it?" Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick says of her proposed People's Prosperity Plan.

Cherfilus-McCormick loaned her campaign more than $3.7 million, outspending the other Democrats in the race, buying plenty of television advertisements and plastering her face on posters and billboards in Broward and Palm Beach counties. It seemed to have worked.

Although she has never held an elected office, she's not new to politics. Cherfilus-McCormick previously ran against Hastings in the 2018 and 2020 Democratic primaries.

Who is the Republican winner?

Mariner is a former drug addict and convict who regained his right to vote, co-founded a recovery center and went on to become the CEO of a company called AdSkinz.

He told WPTV's Michael Williams that his No. 1 goal is to "bring prosperity back to District 20."

WATCH: Jason Mariner: 'I want to give District 20 a second chance'

Jason Mariner: 'I want to give District 20 a second chance'

"District 20 needs a second chance," he said. "America needs a second chance. I got mine, and I want to give District 20 a second chance."

Republican voter Kevin Cerino, who voted for Mariner, readily acknowledged that the seat will "absolutely" go to the Democratic winner.

"It is what it is," Cerino told the Associated Press. "Mariner seems to be slightly less of a clown than the other guy running. This kind of district that's so overwhelmingly Democratic, you're not going to get a quality candidate."

What's next?

Whoever wins won't have much time to savor the victory.

The winner will only fill the remainder of Hastings' term.

A primary election to seek a full term in Congress is set for Aug. 23, 2022.

The general election is scheduled for Nov. 8, 2022.