By Hastings Wyman –
Now that the August 30 primaries for state and local offices are over, a better picture is emerging of the political outlook in the Sunshine State. By and large, the establishments in both parties saw their favorites nominated, with a few exceptions. Under the new, court-ordered “Fair Districts,” three of the state’s 27 congressional districts look especially competitive, although Democrats hope to put several more in play.
The state and local races are, of course, almost over-shadowed and certain to be influenced by the volatile presidential contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, they also have a separate dynamic and will play a key role in Congress next January.
In the high-profile US Senate race, in the Republican Primary US Sen. Marco Rubio (R) easily defeated Carlos Beruff, who ran to Rubio’s right, by 72% to 18%. In November, Rubio will face US Rep. Patrick Murphy (D), who just about as easily defeated his foe on the left, US Rep. Alan Grayson (D) by 59% to 18%. “It’s Rubio’s race to lose,” says Tallahassee-based political analyst Barney Bishop, a Tallahassee-based political analyst; “Murphy was damaged by Grayson in the primary.” Moreover, primary turn-out favored the GOP, with 1,478,394 voting in the Republican Primary to 1,125,576 in the Democratic Primary. Adds a long-time GOP operative, “We’ll be jacking up turnout for lots of races.” And a Democrat, Orlando City Commissioner Pat Sheehan, says, “I’m surprised how strong Marco Rubio is.” So despite his losing presidential bid and his out-then-in decision to run for the Senate, Rubio is the early favorite.
In the congressional races, Sheehan says that “A lot of the races are a lot more competitive because of Fair Districts,” the new law that outlawed partisan redistricting. She singles out Val Demings (D), a former Orlando police chief as a likely winner in the 10th District (Orlando, etc.)
In the three most competitive districts, two are toss-ups and one leans Democratic. In the 26th District (Miami/Dade, etc.), US Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) is facing former US Rep. Joe Garcia (D), who upset DCCC-backed Annette Taddeo in the primary. Bishop says the race “is probably the hottest congressional race in the state.” Curbelo has worked to put distance between himself and Trump, who is unpopular with Hispanic voters. Curbelo is also helped by Rubio’s popularity. But in this district, Trump’s negatives will still help Garcia and the race could go either way.
In the 18th District (Palm Beach, etc.), multimillionaire Randy Perkins (D) and Brian Mast (R) will vie for the seat now held by Senate candidate Murphy. Mast, a double-amputee war veteran, upset the party favorite, Rebecca Negron, in the primary. The race “is a dog-fight, a toss-up,” says the GOP operative. “It could go either way,” says Bishop.
A third race attracting attention is the David Jolly/Charlie Crist contest in the 13th (Pinellas County). Crist should win because of the new district lines. But Jolly has gained by his stand against special interests and incumbent fundraising. Crist has attacked Jolly for “supporting” Trump, but Jolly told Sunshine State News, “If the election were today, I would not support Donald Trump. I don’t know where I’ll be in November, but I don’t see a pathway to support Donald Trump.” Bishop says that Jolly “could win the seat.” On balance, this one leans Democratic.
Democrats are also making serious efforts against John Mica (R) in the 7th (Winter Park, etc.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) in 27th (Miami/Dade). In the 27th, the GOP primary turnout was substantially higher (9,000 votes) than the Democrats, so Ros-Lehtinen (R)’s challenger, fruit juice bottler Scott Fuhrman (D), remains a long shot. The Republican operative says it would take a Trump loss “by almost Biblical proportions” to oust incumbents like Mica and Ros-Lehtinen.
In the newly configured 5th District (Jacksonville to Tallahassee, etc.) US Rep. Corrine Brown, a 12-term veteran of Congress, lost her seat to former state Sen. Al Lawson, making his third congressional race. Her indictment on Federal corruption charges hurt her, but also under the new district lines, much of the vote came from the Tallahassee area, Lawson’s stomping ground. He’s a shoo-in in November. And in the 23rd District (Broward County, etc.), ex-DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz defeated her Bernie Sanders-backed opponent Tim Canova by 57% to 43%. She’s a prohibitive favorite in November.
The 800-lb gorilla in all of this, of course, is Donald Trump. The lead in opinion polls has gone back and forth, usually with Hillary Clinton in the lead. Commenting on the presidential race in the state, Bishop says we “have to wait and see. It’s staying competitive because white older voters still support Trump and are still moving into the state. If he continues to keep the heat on Hillary and doesn’t do anything outrageous, he’s got a good opportunity to win Florida.” The GOP operative says, “It defies logic how [Trump] is still in the game, and it’s the weirdest thing that he’s still in the game in Florida. His support is strong among working class whites and seniors… There’s a real expansion of working class Republicans.” And Sheehan says, “Most of us are horrified by what comes out of his mouth,” as well as that he has opened a campaign office across the street from Pulse, the gay bar that was the scene of a mass murder in June.