TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Health care CEO Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick was elected to fill the seat of late Democratic Florida U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings on Tuesday, boosting the Democrats' slim majority in the House.
Cherfilus-McCormick defeated Republican Jason Mariner in the 20th Congressional District, which is firmly Democratic. Hastings was the longest-serving member of the Florida delegation before he died in April of pancreatic cancer.
Democrats outnumber Republicans by a nearly 5-1 ratio in the district, which includes parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Cherfilus-McCormick received 43,663 votes, or about 79%, while Mariner got 10,883 votes, or about 20%. About 55,000 people voted in the race -- a turnout of just over 11%. Less than 9% of registered voters cast mail-in and in-person early voting ballots, with Democrats casting six times as many votes as Republicans.
Flanked by her husband and two children, Cherfilus-McCormick fought back tears as she celebrated her win with a small gathering of supporters at Smitty's Wings in Fort Lauderdale.
"I am so excited and humbled," the Sun Sentinel quoted Cherfilus-McCormick as saying about an hour after the polls closed. "The people have spoken and the people have spoken very loudly."
Cherfilus-McCormick said she is flying to Washington, D.C, on Wednesday with plans to be sworn in Thursday morning, depending on how quickly the Florida secretary of state validates the results.
Reclaiming Hastings' seat will increase the Democrats' slender House majority to 222-212, leaving room for no more than four Democratic defections as Speaker Nancy Pelosi tries moving her party's bills through the House. For much of 2021, that margin was three.
The win will make little difference, however, for the Democrats' $2 trillion social and environment bill, now stalled in the evenly divided Senate because of objections by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The package is opposed unanimously by Republicans.
There is one other House vacancy: Republican U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes of California left office last week to join a media company run by former President Donald Trump.
Cherfilus-McCormick's victory marked a stark contrast to the November primary, when she defeated a field of 10 other Democrats by only five votes, or less than 24%.
She will have to immediately defend the seat in an August primary and, if she wins, the November general election. The runner-up to Cherfilus-McCormick in November's primary, Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness, has sued to try to overturn the election results. He also plans to run in the August primary.
Demographics worked in Cherfilus-McCormick's favor on Tuesday. She is the black daughter of Haitian immigrants. About half the voters in the district are Black, compared to about 21% who are white. Mariner is white.
Cherfilus-McCormick also had a huge money advantage. She loaned her campaign nearly $6 million, though has repaid herself $2 million. Still, by late December, she had $1.3 million in her campaign account, compared to less than $24,000 for Mariner.
Mariner is the owner of an advertising company that pays drivers to place ads on their cars. He has served two prison sentences totaling nearly two years. He was last released in 2013 after drug and theft convictions, according to the Department of Corrections.
Mariner's campaign website said he beat drug addiction and co-founded a drug and alcohol detox facility.
While some people have questioned whether Mariner can run for office because of the felony convictions, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment giving felons the right to vote. The law implementing the amendment said that all court fees, fines and restitution must be paid before voting rights are restored.
When Mariner registered to vote, he checked a box that said he was previously convicted of a felony, but his voting rights had been restored, said Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Wendy Sartory Link.