Rep. Alcee Hastings’ death opens up a coveted South Florida congressional seat and further narrows Democrats’ already-tenuous House majority.
Hastings, who died at 84 years of age, served in Congress for parts of four decades, most recently representing a majority-Black district that included parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, including slices of Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. The race to replace him in a yet-to-be-scheduled special election sets up what will likely be intense regional jockeying among some of the area’s most prominent political figures.
The 20th Congressional District that Hastings represented was overwhelmingly carried by Joe Biden, who won with more than three-quarters of the vote. While a special election to replace Hastings will be held under the old lines, the seat is not expected to be drastically redrawn during the upcoming redistricting process so it can continue to allow minority candidates to win election there, which means the early short list of candidates has quickly been established.
The list includes some of South Florida’s most prominent Black politicians.
“I join with a heavy heart the community in south Florida in mourning the passing of Congressman Alcee Hastings,” said state Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. “He was a mentor, a friend and a fraternity brother, and I extend my deepest condolences to his family.”
When asked by POLITICO about the now-open seat, Thurston said, “Yes. I’m running.”
If Thurston files paperwork to run, he will likely need to resign from the state Senate, which will set off a large domino, as he is next-in-line to lead the chamber’s Democratic caucus.
Many of those timelines, however, are uncertain because Gov. Ron DeSantis still needs to set a special election date, which will help solidify the timeframe for candidate qualifying.
State Sen. Bobby Powell is also eyeing a bid but said he is not yet ready to make a decision as he mourns Hastings’ passing.
“I am concerned for his family, and I have not made any decision about a Congress run yet,” Powell told POLITICO in a text message.
Other early candidates on the short list, according to multiple people POLITICO spoke with about the race, include former Broward County Mayor Dale Holness, state Sen. Shevrin Jones, state Rep. Omari Hardy and Broward County Commissioner Barbara Muhammad Sharief, who previously served as the county’s first Muslim mayor.
In a statement on Tuesday, Holness called Hastings “a true leader and a blessing in our community.”
While Florida Democrats wait for DeSantis to set a date, House Democrats’ razor-thin majority will be even slimmer. After Rep.-elect Julia Letlow (R-La.) is sworn in next Tuesday, the balance of the House will shift to 218 Democrats and 212 Republicans. That means Speaker Nancy Pelosi can only afford to lose two of her members if she is trying to pass legislation on a party-line vote.
And Democrats are hoping to soon tackle infrastructure and Biden’s immigration bill — issues that could both inspire defections from moderate Democratic members or progressives.
But with several special elections coming down the pike, the makeup of the House will continue to seesaw over the coming months. Still, Democrats’ two-seat majority won’t change until late April at the earliest, when they’ll fill one of the five other vacancies.
The runoff for former Rep. Cedric Richmond’s safe blue seat in Louisiana won’t be held until April 24. The race is between two Democratic state senators and will bring House Democrats to a three-seat majority once the winner is sworn in.
New Mexico isn’t holding a special to fill Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s old seat until June 1. And Ohio Democrats will be waiting until November to choose a congressional replacement for now-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge.
There’s only one vacancy with a potentially competitive special election: the race for Texas’ 6th District on May 1. The late Rep. Ron Wright (R-Texas), who died after a battle with cancer and Covid, won the North Texas district by 9 points in 2020. But the suburban district has been trending toward Democrats in recent years; former President Donald Trump carried it by just 3 points in 2020 after winning by 12 points four years earlier.
And that race is unlikely to be settled quickly. If no candidate clears 50 percent in the all-party match up next month, the race advances to a yet-to-be-scheduled runoff — a likely scenario given that 23 candidates filed to run.
The bottom line: Congress won’t have a full House until at least November, and Pelosi will need almost total Democratic unity to achieve policy wins.
For now, Pelosi is mourning the passing of the at-times controversial Hastings, who was Florida’s first Black federal judge before being impeached and removed from office over allegations he conspired to accept a $150,000 bribe. Three years later, in 1992, he defeated now-Rep. Lois Frankel in a primary for the congressional seat he held until his passing.
“Congressman Hastings leaves behind a powerful legacy of activism and action on behalf of Floridians and all Americans,” Pelosi said in a statement. “His leadership and friendship will be missed by his many friends in Congress.”
Matt Dixon reported from Florida and Ally Mutnick reported from Washington. Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.