Politics

Moderate Messaging by Democrat Janelle Perez Falls Short in State Senate Race

District 38 state senate candidate Janelle Perez (right) with her wife, Monica.
District 38 state senate candidate Janelle Perez (right) with her wife, Monica. Photo by Janelle Perez
While pollsters projected many Republican wins throughout Florida ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the race for the District 38 state senate seat appeared to be anything but a surefire Republican victory.

Two first-time candidates, former GOP staffers, and descendants of Cuban exiles — Democrat Janelle Perez and Republican Alexis Calatayud  — were vying for the statehouse seat. The contest provided a snapshot of how well moderate Democrats' political messaging would play out in newly drawn, Republican-leaning districts.

Despite running on a more pro-business, centrist platform than other Democratic hopefuls, Perez lost to Calatayud by nearly 10 percentage points. Her defeat adds to the list of Democratic routs throughout the state, with gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist and congressional candidate Val Demings losing their respective races against Governor Ron DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio.

"I know everyone is sad about the outcome, but I want you all to know that we ran a campaign that forced Republicans to spend more than $10 million on just this one race," Perez said to her crowd of supporters at Bougainvillea's in South Miami.

Perez urged the young Democratic voters in the crowd not to be discouraged. The 35-year-old, who is gay and married with children, spoke directly to the LGBTQ community.

"To the LGBTQ kids, I fucking got you," Perez said. "It is going to get better. There are people who are going to keep fighting for you. All of you are loved; all of you are special. Don't let this take you down because you have a voice."

Daniela Ferrera, a volunteer for the Perez campaign, blames the loss on lackluster leadership in the Florida Democratic Party.

"These election results say absolutely nothing about Janelle and what it means to be a Miami Democrat, and have all to do with the failures of the Florida Democratic Party, particularly under Manny Diaz's leadership," Ferrera tells New Times. "This is a moment right now where we reassess as a family and as a community because unfortunately, the reality is people voted against their best interests tonight."

"It is not easy for me as a queer Cuban American," Ferrera adds. "I saw so much of myself reflected in her candidacy and to see us go down, it is hard."

On the campaign trail, Perez aimed to redefine what it means to be a "Miami Democrat" as she tried to dispel fears of socialism among the Cuban-American and Hispanic communities in Miami-Dade County. She advocated for LGBTQ and abortion rights while also supporting fiscally conservative policies.

Calatayud campaigned on raising teacher pay and improving public education, though she refrained from weighing in on culture war issues such as the "Don't Say Gay” law, which prohibits discussion of sexuality in Florida public school classrooms before fourth grade.

Through campaign accounts and political committees, Perez raised roughly one million dollars while Calatayud hauled in $628,000.

The race became heated in the weeks leading up to the election as Perez criticized Calatayud's campaign for releasing political ads that depicted Perez during her recovery from late-stage lymphoma. Calatayud skewered Perez's family's Medicare insurance business, and protestors showed up at its offices with signs stating, “Elders get less and Perez earns more” and “No to socialism,” phrases that echoed Calatayud’s campaign ads nearly verbatim.

Perez said she received harassing calls and death threats after a Calatayud campaign ad released her personal phone number. Calatayud in turn accused Perez's campaign of releasing Calatayud's phone number.

In the wake of Perez's defeat, Ferrera says the Florida Democratic Party needs to rebrand and reclaim its identity.

"It is economic issues that really drive people to polls and we saw that in this election cycle," Ferrera asserts. "We need to start from scratch and realize people are struggling right now. It's a reframing of the way that we communicate to voters and just making sure that we continue to engage communities."

Ferrera argues the Democratic Party has failed to make significant inroads within the Cuban-American population and other Hispanic communities that have played a pivotal role in flipping the county red this election cycle.

Ferrera says she believes voters will at one point "wake up" and realize "we are the party that is fighting for [their] family and future." But she concedes that "Republicans did outwork the Democrats."

"They did put in the time and 24/7 commitments to Latino communities," Ferrera tells New Times. "They had centers specifically focused on Latino voters and we've been sounding the alarms for a very long time. I've been saying, 'They are gaining on us every election cycle.'"

Calatayud's victory will help increase the Republican majority in the 40-member state senate, which the party has controlled since the mid-1990s.
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Naomi Feinstein is a fellow at Miami New Times. She spent the last year in New York City getting her master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is also a proud alum of the University of Miami.
Contact: Naomi Feinstein
Reina Perez is a freelance writer at Miami New Times. She studied journalism at Nova Southeastern University.
Contact: Reina Perez

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