Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida

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Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida
© Greg Nash/The Hill Headaches intensify for Democrats in Florida

The headaches are intensifying for Florida Democrats as retirements, candidate recruitment challenges and a burgeoning redistricting fight add to the party’s troubles in an already-difficult midterm election year.

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The party’s hopes of winning approval of new political maps proposed by the Republican-controlled state Senate – with which Democrats were largely satisfied – are now mired in uncertainty after Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) took the unusual step of submitting his own redistricting plan that would drastically claw back the number of Democratic districts.

At the same time, Democrats are contending with the retirement of Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), as well as the losses of Reps. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) and Val Demings (D-Fla.), who are foregoing reelection this year to run for governor and Senate, respectively.

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There are also questions about who will challenge Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) and Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.) for two South Florida House seats that are among the most competitive in the state and flipped into Republican hands in 2020.

Taken together, the challenges are daunting for Democrats, who are already facing historical and political headwinds in their bid to hold onto a razor-thin majority in the House this year. Republicans need to pick up just five seats in November to recapture the lower chamber.

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“It’s a headache,” Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida, said. “The process is being rigged and dragged on to make this as painful as possible. We need candidates to announce now. There’s still time between now and November, but it has to happen soon.”

DeSantis, a rising conservative star who’s seen as a potential candidate for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nod, caught state lawmakers off guard this week when his general counsel submitted a draft congressional map that gives Republicans 18 districts former President Trump would have won in the 2020 election compared to 10 that would have gone for President Biden.

The governor’s congressional map also redraws the districts represented by Crist and Murphy, and cuts the number of districts in which Black voters could reliably elect candidates from four to two by effectively doing away with the seats held by Demings and Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla). The draft map has already garnered threats of lawsuits.

DeSantis’s map stands in contrast to the state Senate’s draft congressional map that includes 16 Trump-won districts and 12 for Biden, and has largely won the support of Democrats. The Senate overwhelmingly approved that map on Thursday in a vote that marked a rare Republican rebuke of DeSantis.

But what happens next is an open question. The state House is moving much more slowly than the Senate, and hasn’t yet said when it will consider its draft maps. And while some of the maps proposed by the House look similar to the Senate, it has also put forth drafts that resemble DeSantis’s proposal.

Even if both chambers buck DeSantis on his proposed maps, the governor will ultimately have to sign off on the lines – something he pointed out on Thursday after the Senate approved its own congressional map.

“For the congressional map, it requires my signature,” DeSantis said. “And so, you know, we have lawyers that had had concerns about what they were doing. So that process will work itself out, and we’ll be able to hopefully end up with a product that makes a lot of sense.”

The uncertainty surrounding the redistricting process has effectively frozen Democrats in key House races for the time being. In Florida’s 26th District, no Democrat has jumped into the race to challenge Gimenez, who defeated former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-Fla.) in 2020.

Meanwhile, only one Democrat, Angel Montalvo, is left in the race to challenge Salazar in Florida’s 27th District. Montalvo’s latest financial report, filed with the Federal Election Commission in October, showed him with only about $2,500 in the bank – a far cry from the more than $800,000 in cash on hand that Salazar reported at the time.

Party officials have so far blamed the ongoing redistricting process for the slow pace of recruitment, and one Florida Democratic operative said that Mucarsel-Powell is expected to announce soon whether she will mount another campaign this year.

Former Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), who lost her House seat to Salazar in 2020, has also indicated that she could seek a rematch in 2022, though she hasn’t committed to a run.

“It’s concerning that these seats are being unchallenged right now, because they were Democrat last cycle. Both of them,” one Florida Democrat said. “It’s a mistake to let the redistricting process intimidate us from contesting these districts. Regardless of what happens, the seats need to be challenged.”

Redistricting is also posing similar challenges for Democrats in the race to succeed Murphy. While the congressional map approved by the state Senate this week would keep Murphy’s district more favorable for Democrats, other draft maps, including the one proposed by DeSantis, would give the GOP a heavy edge there.

No Democrat has jumped into the race for Murphy’s seat while the redistricting process plays out.

Even before Murphy’s retirement, however, Democrats appeared to be facing an uphill battle in Florida. For one, the state party is still working to rebuild itself both politically and financially after a disastrous 2020 election cycle that saw Democrats there lose two House seats and Trump carry the state by more than 3 points – a landslide by Florida standards.

There’s also the matter of voter registration numbers. In November, the number of registered Republican voters in Florida surpassed registered Democrats for the first time in the state’s history. Such a reversal is significant; in 2008 there were nearly 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state.

Democrats are also facing the same challenges in Florida as they are just about everywhere else in the country. Biden’s approval rating has continued a months-long slide and currently sits at about 42 percent, according to the data website FiveThirtyEight, which tracks presidential approval.

Still, many Democrats still insist that Florida remains winnable. Kennedy, the DNC member, noted that ultra-close elections are the norm in the Sunshine State, saying that it would be a mistake to cede any competitive race to Republicans.

“I’m not optimistic but I’m not pessimistic,” Kennedy said. “We’re going to put in the work and seek the best outcome for the people of Florida. That’s all we can do.”

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