- In Florida, candidates in several state senate races with no party affiliation (NPA) garnered thousands of votes with little to no campaigning or fundraising.
- The playbook appears the same across races: A candidate with no political experience registers to run just days before the deadline.
- Then, political action committees pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into mailers supporting these candidates, often using language that appears designed to appeal to Democratic voters.
- Florida state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who narrowly lost reelection by 32 votes, claimed in an interview with Business Insider that this was an attempt by the Republican party to pull Democratic votes from his campaign.
- More than 6,000 people voted for Alex Rodriguez, an NPA candidate with no previous political experience and no public presence but who shared a last name with the incumbent.
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In several key state races in Florida, candidates with no party affiliation (NPA) garnered thousands of votes with little to no campaigning or fundraising. Over the past few weeks, evidence has emerged to suggest that these were actually “ghost candidates” meant to siphon votes from their Democratic challengers. In one case, sources told the Miami Herald an NPA candidate was planted by a former Republican state senator and almost certainly changed the outcome of the race.
The playbook appears the same across races: A candidate with no political experience registers to run just days before the deadline. Then, political action committees with apparent ties to prominent Republicans pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into mailers supporting these candidates, often using language that appears designed to appeal to Democratic voters.
The race for Miami-Dade’s state Senate District 37 between Democratic incumbent Jose Javier Rodriguez and Ileana Garcia, the founder of Latinos for Trump, was always expected to be close. In the end, Garcia won by just 32 votes. That’s arguably because more than 6,000 people voted for Alex Rodriguez, an NPA candidate with no previous political experience and no public presence but who shared a last name with the incumbent.
Jose Javier Rodriguez claimed in an interview with Business Insider that this was an attempt by the Republican party to pull Democratic votes from his campaign. “The Republicans ran one campaign, one unethical campaign, with two candidates,” he said. Miami-Dade prosecutors are now looking into this race, according to local reports.
Indeed, at a campaign party on election night, former Miami state Senator Frank Artiles told invitees that he had convinced Alex Rodriguez to run for the seat. “That is me, that was all me,” Artiles said, according to attendees. Artiles started working on a plan to draw votes away from the Democratic incumbent in 2018, after he was forced to resign from the Florida state Senate for using a racial slur to refer to two Black lawmakers, according to the Miami Herald.
At the time, he boasted to a friend that he had developed a “siphoning strategy” that relied on using a shill candidate to pull votes away from the Democratic candidate, according to the Herald. He enlisted his close friend, Alex Rodriguez, who conveniently shared a last name with the incumbent, to serve as the fake candidate, the Herald reported.
Neither Frank Artiles nor Alex Rodriguez responded to repeated requests for comment from Business Insider. When confronted by a local news station WPLG reporter, Alex Rodriguez pretended to be somebody else.
Alex Rodriguez registered his campaign in June, just days before the qualifying deadline. Campaign records show that Rodriguez received just one donation of $2,000 from the candidate himself. Most of that donation likely went to filing fees, which the campaign paid just two days after receiving the donation.
On his filing payment, Rodriguez listed Jose “Pepe” Riesco as his campaign’s treasurer. Riesco, an accountant based in Miami, serves as the treasurer of several political action committees that donate heavily to local Republican candidates, one of whom shares an address with the Alex Rodriguez campaign.
After that, the campaign went dark for four months. Rodriguez didn’t appear at any public events, nor did he create a campaign website or announce a platform.
Then, in early October, a political action committee called Our Florida paid $370,000 to Advance Impression, an Orlando-based printing company, campaign finance records show. Shortly thereafter, mailers supporting Alex Rodriguez and another South Florida NPA candidate began to circulate.
Our Florida, which has only been active in the most recent election cycle, is connected to Alex Alvarado, a young Republican operative, according to CNN. Alvarado’s stepfather owns Advance Impression, which printed the mailers supporting Alex Rodriguez, CNN reported.
Alvarado declined to comment for this article.
Similar mailers supporting a third-party candidate also appeared in a highly contentious race in Orlando. This time, the mailers were directed at an NPA candidate named Jestine Iannotti, who entered the state senatorial race between Republican Jason Brodeur and Democrat Patricia Sigman. The mailers, which were first reported on by Politico, were clearly targeted at the district’s Black population. They featured an image of a Black woman and the text “Jestine Iannotti will always be there for us.”
But Iannotti wasn’t there for the city’s Black population – in fact, she wasn’t there for anyone. Like the other NPA candidates, Iannotti never campaigned or participated in interviews. Her campaign raised just $1,300, more than half of which was a donation from Iannotti herself.
“She was a ghost,” Sigman said. “Throughout the campaign process, she stayed hidden.” Like Jose Rodriguez, Sigman, who narrowly lost her race, places the blame squarely on the Republican party.
The mailers supporting Iannotti were funded by The Truth, a PAC with remarkable similarities to Our Florida. Both were founded during the 2020 cycle by political newcomers. Both listed just one expenditure, on the same day, to the printing company owned by Alvarado’s stepfather.
In both cases, the PACs’ expenditure to the printing company matches a donation received just two days earlier from an Atlanta-based company called Proclivity. Its address is a UPS store in Atlanta, and is not a registered business in Georgia, nor is it registered as a political organization in Florida, the Sun Sentinal points out.
The chairman of The Truth, Hailey De Philippis, did not respond to emails and calls from Business Insider.
The use of NPA candidates to sway the vote isn’t unique to this year’s election, according to Michael Binder, a professor of political science at the University of North Florida. Neither is it illegal. In fact, the state Republican party has been tied to straw candidates in the past.
In 2012, Republican David Rivera allegedly paid a South Florida man to run in the Democratic primary against his opponent. In 2018, a consulting firm frequented by Republicans sent out mailers backing an NPA candidate in a bid to unseat an incumbent Democrat. That same consulting firm was used by the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee in this past election to send out large numbers of mailers.
Several of the candidates in this current election, including Sigman, also faced Republican-backed challengers in their primaries. While primary ghost candidates must be registered with a political party, they nonetheless serve the same purpose as NPA candidates – to draw votes away from the frontrunner.
“These candidates don’t matter until they matter,” Binder said. “You can find a ton of different races with NPA candidates or registered write-in candidates that are not particularly meaningful at all. However, when they are meaningful, it can absolutely swing an election.”