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Three Democratic U.S. House incumbents survive; Donna Shalala wins race for Miami seat
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — November’s election for Florida governor will pit a Donald Trump acolyte against a Bernie Sanders-backed Democrat trying to become the first African-American ever elected to lead the Sunshine State.
In the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis easily defeated State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who started the campaign as the front-runner but saw his chances fade after DeSantis got Trump’s endorsement.
But the biggest surprise of the August 28 vote came on the Democratic side, where Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came from behind to defeat two self-funding millionaires and former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who comes from a prominent Florida political family.
Meanwhile, three Democratic incumbent U.S. House members who faced primary challenges survived, including 9th District U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, who easily defeated former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a controversial liberal firebrand trying to make a political comeback.
Also, Donna Shalala, President Bill Clinton’s health secretary, won her primary in a GOP-held district likely to flip in November.
In the Republican race for governor, DeSantis, 39, from Palm Coast, beat Putnam by 20 points, carrying all of the state’s large cities.
“I believe there is no limit to what we can accomplish here as long as we have the courage to lead,” he told supporters at a victory party in Orlando. “And I pledge to you as governor to work my but off to accomplish great things for this state.”
DeSantis also offered his thanks to Trump “for viewing me as someone who can be a great leader for Florida.”
The result was a significant stumble for Putnam, 44, who spent 10 years in Congress and two terms as agriculture commission with his eye on the governor’s mansion.
Speaking to supporters in Lakeland, Putnam said he would do “any and everything we can” to help DeSantis win in November.
“He’s a veteran, he’s a solid conservative, and he will need our help,” Putnam said.
On the Democratic side, Gillum, who was vastly outspent and did not lead in a single public pre-election poll, took 34 percent to 31 percent for Graham. Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine came in at 20 percent and Palm Beach billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene at 10 percent.
Florida does not have primary runoffs, so Gillum won the nomination without a runoff.
Combined, Levine and Greene put more than $20 million of their own money into the race, to no avail.
Gillum was outspent by all of his major competitors, although he did get an infusion of cash near the end of the campaign from liberal megadonorrs George Soros and Tom Steyer. He was also endorsed by Sanders, the self-styled democratic socialist who ran an insurgent presidential campaign in 2016.
“There were just a few people who said that this moment would not be possible,” Gillum told cheering supporters in Tallahassee. “And then there were a few more who believed this day was possible.”
“This thing is not about me. It never has been. It never will be,” he said. “This race is about every single one of you.”
Gillum’s victory upsets the political equation on both sides. Democrats had been hoping for a DeSantis win, seeing him as a weaker candidate against Graham, who had a moderate record during her one term in Congress. Now, both campaigns will have to adapt to a race pitting the most conservative candidate in the race against the most liberal.
Gillum is also the first African American candidate in either party to win a gubernatorial nomination in Florida and would become the state’s first black governor if he beats DeSantis in November.
One cloud on the horizon for Gillum is an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption in Tallahassee city government. He has insisted that he is not implicated in the probe, although photographs have surfaced of the mayor traveling with two FBI agents who were working undercover.
Gillum, like DeSantis, won all of the state’s major cities. The key to his victory was a collapse in Graham’s vote in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where she didn’t break 20 percent.
Speaking to her supporters in Orlando, Graham pledged her support to Gillum, relating a phone call she had with the primary winner.
“I said, ‘Now Andrew, go out and win this damn thing because this is too important to the state of Florida,” said Graham, the daughter of former governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham.
In the U.S. Senate race, both Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and Republican Governor Rick Scott easily won their party’s nominations for the fall election, setting up what is likely to be the nation’s most expensive Senate race this year.
In U.S. House races, three Democratic incumbents also easily turned back primary challengers.
In the 5th District, a majority-minority district that stretches across North Florida from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee took 60 percent of the vote to defeat former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.
In the 9th District in metro Orlando, Soto easily dispatched Grayson, 66 percent to 44 percent. Grayson was trying to make a comeback after giving up the seat in 2016 to make an ill-fated bid for the U.S. Senate.
Tuesday’s primaries also set up fall matches for four battleground seats that Democrats are trying to take away in their quest to win control of the House.
In the 27th District in Miami-Dade County, Shalala, a Clinton cabinet secretary and former president of the University of Miami, took the first step in her quest to launch a political career at age 77, winning with 32 percent of the vote in a field of five candidates.
She will face Republican Maria Elvira Salazar, a former Spanish-language TV news anchor, who won the GOP race with 41 percent of the vote.
The district, which includes Miami Beach and parts of Miami, is open due to the retirement of veteran Republican U.S. Rep. Ilena Ros-Lehtinen, who has held it for 30 years. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in the district by nearly 20 points in 2016, making this one of the Democrats best pickup opportunities nationally.
However, the population of the district is more than 70 percent Latino and includes Miami’s politically potent Cuban community. Salazar is a Cuban-American born in Miami; Shalala, of Lebanese descent, was born in Ohio and moved to Miami in 2001.
In the 16th District centered on the southern side of Tampa Bay, Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota is seeking a seventh term in a district Trump carried by 11 points. He will face Democrat David Shapiro, a Sarasota lawyer who easily won his party’s nomination.
Shapiro has raised more than $1.3 million for the race to try to make it competitive, according to Federal Elections Commission campaign finance reports. However, Buchanan has raised $2.2 million.
In the 18th District along the Treasure Coast and northern Palm Beach County, the Democratic nominee will be Laura Baer, an attorney from Palm Beach Gardens who served as a senior adviser to secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. She will now take on Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Mast from Palm City in a swing district that switched parties in 2012 and 2016.
Curbelo been a rare critic of Trump within the House Republican Caucus as he tries to hang on in a district Hillary Clinton won by 16 points.
Republicans also picked nominees for three open GOP-held seats that they will be favored to retain in November.
In the 6th District in metro Jacksonville, which DeSantis gave up to run for governor, Republicans chose Mike Waltz, an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney. In November, he will face Democrat Nancy Soderberg, a former Bill Clinton aide who served as deputy U.N. ambassador.
In Southwest Florida’s 15th District, where Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross retired, State Rep. Ross Spano won the Republican nomination and will now face Democrat Kristen Carlson, former general counsel for the Florida Department of Citrus.
Jurors decide former Jacksonville congresswoman looted scholarship charity
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
JACKSONVILLE, Florida (CFP) — Corrine Brown, an icon in North Florida’s African-American community who served 24 years in Congress, is likely headed to prison after being convicted of looting a fraudulent scholarship charity to pay personal expenses.
Brown was found guilty May 11 on 18 of the 22 charges against her, including conspiracy, wire and mail fraud and filing false tax returns. No sentencing date has been set, but, given the number and magnitude of the charges, the 70-year-old former Democratic congresswoman could potentially spend much of the rest of her life behind bars.
Brown made no comment as she left the federal courthouse in downtown Jacksonville, the funding for which, as she often noted, she was instrumental in pushing through Congress.
In a statement released later by her lawyer, Brown continued to maintain her innocence and vowed to fight on.
“This fight is not over, and as I’m sure you know, I will continue to fight to clear my name and restore my reputation,” she said.
In a statement, Kenneth Blanco, the acting assistant attorney general, said Brown had “violated the public trust, the honor of her position and the integrity of the American system of government.”
“She shamefully deprived needy children of hundreds of thousands of dollars that could have helped with their education and improved their opportunities for advancement, and she lied to the IRS and the American public about secret cash deposits into her personal bank accounts,” Blanco said.
Prosecutors said Brown and her associates operated a fraudulent private charity that purported to provide scholarships for needy students but instead diverted the money to their personal accounts to pay for luxuries and other expenses. Brown used her political connections to raise money for the charity, which took in more than $800,000 put paid out just $1,200 in scholarships, according to prosecutors.
Brown’s longtime former chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, and the president of the charity, Carla Wiley, have both pleaded guilty to charges related to the scheme, and Simmons became the star witness against Brown.
Brown took the stand in her own defense, insisting that she did not know that Evans was diverting money from the charity.
The conviction marks a tragic fall for Brown, who in 1992 became part of the first group of African-Americans in Florida’s U.S. House delegation since Reconstruction.
With a political operation built on a flair for publicity and attention to constituent service — her campaign slogan was, “Corrine Delivers” — she was never seriously challenged, despite court-ordered changes in her district and efforts by Republicans to unseat her.
However, in 2015, the Florida Supreme Court dismembered her 5th District, ruling that it was gerrymandered based on racial considerations in violation of state law. Instead of taking in African-American communities in Jacksonville and snaking down the St. Johns River valley to Orlando, the new district heads straight west to Tallahassee, giving Brown a wide swath of unfamiliar territory to defend.
The new lines, coupled with her indictment on fraud charges, led to her primary loss to U.S. Rep. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, ending her 34-year political career.
Charlie Crist makes a comeback in Florida, but John Mica falls; Republicans keep open seats in Florida, Louisiana
(CFP) — Democrats made a slight, two-seat net gain in Southern Republican U.S. House seats in the November 8 election, taking down two Republican incumbents in Florida but coming up short in targeted GOP-held seats in Virginia and Texas.
Republicans also picked up an open seat along Florida’s Treasure Coast and kept an open seat in Louisiana, where two Republicans will face each other in a December 10 runoff.
Republicans still hold a commanding lead over Democrats in House seats in the South, 113 to 40, with another seat in Louisiana still to be determined.
The night’s most prominent casualty was Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica, who lost his bid for a 12th term to Democrat Stephanie Murphy in Florida’s 7th District, which takes in central Orlando and the city’s northern suburbs.
Murphy, making her first bid for office, beat Mica by a margin of 51-49 percent.
A redraw of Florida’s U.S. House map ordered by the Florida Supreme Court added Democratic voters to Mica’s district, forcing him to run in a constituency in which 30 percent of the voters were new.
The new map also had an effect in Florida’s 13th District, in Pinellas County, where Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist resurrected his political career by knocking off Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly.
Crist, who served as Florida governor from 2007 to 2011 as a Republican, won by a 52-48 percent margin after the Supreme Court added Democratic areas of St. Peterburg into what had been a swing district.
Jolly had initially decided to abandon a re-election bid in the new district and run for the U.S. Senate. But he changed course after U.S. Senator Marco Rubio changed his mind about running for a second term.
Hurd managed to survive in this majority Latino district, even with Donald Trump at the head of his party’s ticket. In fact, Hurd managed to increase his victory margin by about 1,300 votes over 2014.
Curbelo defeated former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia by a 53-41 percent margin in Florida’s 26th District, which includes part of Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys.
His margin of victory was a significant improvement from 2014, when Curbelo defeated by Garcia by just 5,800 votes.
Comstock defeated Democrat LuAnn Bennett by a 53-47 percent margin in Virginia’s 10th District, which starts in the western D.C. suburbs and stretches out to West Virginia.
Democrats had hoped that Trump’s candidacy would be a drag on Comstock in this suburban district in a state Hillary Clinton won. But Comstock had no difficulty.
In Florida’s 18th District, a swing seat that includes parts of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, Republicans picked up the seat vacated by Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who made an unsuccessful run for the Senate.
Republican Brian Mast, an Army veteran who lost both his legs while serving as a bomb disposal specialist in Afghanistan, defeated Democrat Randy Perkins, a multimillionaire businessman from Delray Beach. Mast’s margin of victory was 54-43 percent.
Republicans also kept one of their two seats in Louisiana that opened up when the incumbents ran for the Senate. In the 3rd District, which takes in the southwest part of the state, Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle from Breaux Bridge and Clay Higgins, a law enforcement officer from Lafayette, both cleared the field in the state’s all-party “jungle” primary and will face off in the December 10 runoff.
In Louisiana’s 4th District, which takes in the northwest part of the state, Republican State Rep. Mike Johnson of Bossier Parish will face Democrat Marshall Jones, an attorney from Shreveport, in the runoff, which will be the last pickup opportunity for Democrats.
Court-ordered redraws of congressional maps affected a number of races in both Florida and Virginia.
In Florida, Republicans picked up the 2nd District seat in the Panhandle, which became more Republican under the new map. Panama City urologist Neal Dunn defeated Democrat Walt Dartland by a margin of 67-30 percent.
However, the GOP lost the 10th District seat in Orlando, which became more Democratic. Former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings carried this seat for the Democrats over Republican Thuy Lowe by a margin of 65-35 percent.
However, the GOP hung on to another redrawn seat in the 5th District, where Republican State Senator Tom Garrett from Buckingham County defeated Democrat Jane Dittmar, the former chair of the Albermarle County Board of Supervisors, by a margin of 58-42 percent.
Democrats looking for pickups in Florida, Texas and Virginia
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
(CFP) — Heading into the November 8 election, fewer than a dozen U.S. House seats across the South are in play, and most of those are the result of court-ordered redraws of congressional maps in Florida and Virginia.
If the night goes well, Democrats could pick up a net total of seven GOP-held seats — three each in Florida and Virginia and one in Texas. But if Republican incumbents manage to pull out close races, the shift could be just one seat, the 4th District in Virginia that seems certain to change hands because of the new map.
Either way, the Republican advantage over Democrats in U.S. House seats, now 116 to 38, should not budge much.
In Florida, the redraw of the map (click here to see map) should allow Republicans to pick up the 2nd District, based in the Panhandle and now held by U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, who opted not to run after the district became substantially more Republican.
But Democrats are almost certain to counter that GOP gain by taking the Orlando-based 10th District, which under the new map is more Democratic.
Republican fortunes in Florida will come down to three incumbents facing tough fights for re-election — John Mica in the 7th District, which includes parts of Orlando and its northern suburbs; David Jolly in the 13th District in and around St. Petersburg; and Carlos Curbelo, in the 26th District, which includes part of Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys.
Democrats are defending a seat in the 18th District, along the Treasure Coast, which U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy gave up to run for the U.S. Senate.
In Virginia, the new map affected two Republican-held districts, the 4th and the 5th. The 4th is expected to go Democratic, but Republicans are hoping to keep the 5th.
In addition to those seats, Republican U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock , whose 10th District seat meanders from the Washington, D.C. suburbs toward West Virginia, has become a top Democratic target.
In Texas, Republican U.S. Rep. Will Hurd is also in a tough fight in the 23rd District, which includes a vast expanse of West Texas from the San Antonio suburbs to near El Paso. In a district with a 55 percent Latino population, Hurd is facing significant headwinds with Donald Trump at the top of his party’s ticket.
Here is a rundown of the key U.S. House races around the South:
Florida 5: This seat opened up after the incumbent, Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, was defeated in the primary by Al Lawson, a former state lawmaker from Tallahassee. This district was radically redrawn and now starts in Jacksonville and heads due west to Tallahassee, making it less black and more Republican. Still, Lawson is a heavy favorite over Republican Glo Smith.
Florida 7: Mica is running again in this district in suburban Orlando. But he now has some of the Democratic voters who used to be in Brown’s 5th District, making this district much less safe that it was. He faces political newcomer Stephanie Murphy, a college professor and former national security professional who has benefited from more than $3 million in outside funding poured into the race by Democrat-aligned groups.
Florida 10: This Orlando-area district, now held by Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, was made substantially more Democratic in the redraw–so much so that Webster opted to run for re-election in the adjacent 11th District, where U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent is retiring. Democrats nominated former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, who should carry this seat over Republican Thuy Lowe.
Florida 13: This swing district in the Tampa Bay area features a high voltage smackdown between David Jolly and former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat who is trying to make a political comeback after losing the governor’s race in 2014. The redraw of Florida’s map added a portion of St. Petersburg with a large minority population to this district, making it more Democratic. Facing long odds, Jolly first opted to run for the U.S. Senate before deciding to try to keep his seat.
Florida 18: This seat, which includes part of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, is a classic swing district. With Murphy out, Democrats selected Randy Perkins, a multimillionaire businessman from Delray Beach, while Republicans went with Brian Mast, an Army veteran who lost both his legs while serving as a bomb disposal specialist in Afghanistan. Both are political newcomers.
Florida 26: Like the 18th District, this seat, which includes southwest Miami-Dade County and the Florida Keys, has gone back and forth between the parties in recent cycles. The incumbent, Curbelo, faces a rematch against the man he beat by less than 5,800 votes in 2014, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia.
Texas 23: This massive district, which stretches across a vast expanse of West Texas from the San Antonio suburbs to near El Paso, has changed hands in the last three elections. The incumbent, Hurd, is that rarest of creatures, a black Republican representing a majority Latino district. His Democratic challenger is the man Hurd beat in 2014, former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego. Hurd’s winning margin last time was just 2,400 votes, indicating just how equally divided this district is.
Virginia 4: A new map drawn by a federal court added Richmond and Petersburg to this southeast Virginia district, making it substantially more Democratic. The incumbent, Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, left this seat to run unsuccessfully in the redrawn 2nd District, leaving an open seat that’s ripe for a Democratic pick-up. Republican Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade will face off against Democratic State Senator Donald McEachin, also of Henrico County. A win by McEachin would add a second African-American congressman to the state’s delegation.
Virginia 5: Democrats have hopes of taking this seat, which is open because of the retirement of Republican U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt. But this district, which stretches through central Virginia from the North Carolina border to the Washington, D.C. suburbs, has a Republican lean. GOP State Senator Tom Garrett from Buckingham County is facing Democrat Jane Dittmar, the former chair of the Albermarle County Board of Supervisors.
Virginia 10: This district starts in the western D.C. suburbs and stretches out to West Virginia. Although Comstock won handily in 2014, this is a district full of suburban swing voters who Democrats are hoping will be turned off by a Trump-led GOP ticket. She faces Democrat LuAnn Bennett, a real estate developer who is the ex-wife of former U.S. Rep. Jim Moran.
Florida Democrat accused of using donations to scholarship fund for personal expenses
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
JACKSONVILLE (CFP) — U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Florida has been indicted on a slew of federal fraud charges, accused of converting a scholarship fund into a private piggy bank that was used to pay for her political promotion and personal expenses.
Brown, 69, a Jacksonville Democrat serving her 12th term in Congress, was released on bond after a July 8 appearance in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, where she pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
“My heart is just really heavy. This has been a really difficult time for me, my family and my constituents,” Brown told reporters as she was leaving the courthouse. “But I’m looking forward to a speedy day in court to vindicate myself.”
Brown’s indictment came just seven weeks before Florida’s primary, in which she is facing a stiff challenge from former State Senator Al Lawson in the 5th District, which was reconfigured earlier this year by the Florida Supreme Court.
The 24-count federal indictment charges Brown with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, multiple counts of mail and wire fraud, concealing material facts on required financial disclosure forms, theft of government property, obstruction of the due administration of the internal revenue laws, and filing false tax returns.
If convicted on all charges, she could face as much as 357 years in prison, although such a lengthy sentence would be unlikely.
Her chief of staff, Ronnie Simmons, was indicted on similar charges. He also pleaded not guilty.
Federal prosecutors allege that starting in 2012, Brown and Simmons began conspiring with Carla Wiley, who operated One Door for Education, a Virginia-based charity which purportedly helped poor college students by giving them scholarships.
According to the indictment, Brown and Simmons used her official position as a congresswoman to solicit money for One Door, which raised more than $800,000.
However, according to prosecutors, only $1,200 of that amount went for scholarships. Much of the rest was converted for Brown’s professional and personal use, including direct deposits of money into her bank accounts, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors also allege that more than $200,000 in One Door money was used to pay for events hosted by Brown or held in her honor, including a golf tournament and use of a luxury box during a Washington Redskins game.
In announcing the indictment, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, A. Lee Bentley, said his office “is committed to ferreting out and prosecuting all forms of corruption and fraud, regardless of who the offender is.”
“In our nation, no one is above the law,” he said.
Questions about One Door were first raised in January by the Florida Times-Union newspaper in Jacksonville, which triggered a grand jury investigation into Brown’s conduct.
At the same time, the Florida Supreme Court ordered Brown’s 5th District to be substantially redrawn, over her strenuous objections.
The new district, which begins in Jacksonville and heads due west across the Florida Panhandle to Tallahassee, is still majority black but has a lower black population than Brown’s old district.
After Brown lost a lawsuit challenging the plan in federal court, Lawson, from Tallahassee, announced he would run against her.
Lawson’s reaction to Brown’s indictment was low key. On his Facebook page, he called her legal problems “unfortunate” and went on to say, “I intend to carry the torch of equality, decency and honesty to Congress and to make everyone proud.”
The primary is August 30.