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Florida’s Most Expensive Race Was Also One of the Closest

November 24, 2018 - 6:00am
Janet Cruz and Dana Young
Janet Cruz and Dana Young

With all of the drama, turmoil, embarrassment and legal wrangling surrounding the recounting of ballots in South Florida, a far more dramatic race on Florida’s other coast was easily overlooked. 

The U.S. senatorial, agriculture commissioner and gubernatorial races were close enough that they hinged on the exploits of Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes. But in the Tampa region, the Janet Cruz-Dana Young seat was the hands-down hottest contest for a state Senate seat at least in the 2018 election. 

And closest.

And most fiercely spent.

Although exact numbers are not yet available, most following the cash are convinced the contest between term-limited Democratic House Leader Janet Cruz and standing Republican Sen. Dana Young was the most expensive in Florida-elections history. The reasons were notable, but the result was unknown until last weekend’s recount was finalized.

At one time thought to be a walkover contest for Cruz, the race became a true toss-up in the months leading up to November’s vote. The incumbent Young had some initial traction, but Democrat Cruz had upset Florida Democratic Party plans by injecting herself in the Senate contest. The leap -- and other questionable allegiances during her time in the House -- saw Cruz distance herself from various liberal groups.

But, because the polling in this largely urban region reflected a close race, the cash rolled in on both sides -- and the need to spend big. The district includes the northwest corner of Hillsborough County, Town n' Country, West Tampa and South Tampa. This large television market meant greater ad rates. 

Each candidate spent in ranges that initially would not drop jaws; going into November, Young’s campaign had spent $1 million, and Cruz $500,000. But the statewide parties, and some outside donors begun funneling more cash toward the effort. Senatorial campaign committees ramped up the spending for TV ads and mailers once the seat truly looked contested.

Outside interest groups and PACs also joined in. And each candidate attracted vested interests. Estimates are that an additional $5 million went into the Cruz effort, with more being poured into the Young campaign. In the end, as much as $13 million had been expended to win the seat -- and it was not until Sunday that anything was settled.

Cruz managed to lose endorsements from various Democratic backers and the Republican Party of Florida sensed blood in the water. The heavily blue district was in the the grasp of centrist Young, or so it appeared -- hence, the money tug-of-war. The initial result tilted toward Cruz but was essentially a tie.

After more than a dozen million dollars spent, the women were separated by a few dozen votes.

The mail-in and provisional ballots delivered nothing conclusive, and so going into overtime, the hand count would decide it all. In the end, after all of the yelling and checks cleared, Cruz came out with barely 400 votes ahead. 

The only mystery now remaining is whether the allegiances Janet Cruz built up in two terms in the House will aid her in the Senate, or if the bad blood she simmered within her own party will stonewall her going forward.

Brad Slager, a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer, wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News. He writes on politics and the entertainment industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.

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