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Lawmakers convene special session on governor’s plan to add 4 Republican-leaning seats, nuke North Florida majority-minority district
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Florida lawmakers will be back in Tallahassee this week to approve a new U.S. House map, with the Republicans in charge ready (or maybe just resigned?) to letting Governor Ron DeSantis take the lead – a decision that’s almost certain to result in both state and federal court fights over how far Republicans can go in gerrymandering the map to their advantage.
DeSantis has proposed a new map that will add four GOP-leaning seats across the state, giving the party a shot at winning 20 of 28 seats – in a state where Republicans usually only win by single-digit margins in statewide races.
Potentially more problematically from a legal perspective, DeSantis wants to nuke the current 5th District in North Florida, a Democratic-leaning, majority-minority district that stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee.
Instead, metro Jacksonville will be carved into two Republican-leaning districts, and Tallahassee and rural areas in the district will be subsumed into two existing districts, which have heavy GOP majorities.
DeSantis has railed against the 5th District, which was created by the Florida Supreme Court after a lawsuit over the 2012 U.S. House map. Its existence was the primary reason he vetoed the map approved earlier this year by Republican legislators, who were wary of trying to dismantle a district that is 47% black, represented by black Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson.
But DeSantis has insisted he wants a “race neutral” map, in which districts aren’t drawn with racial considerations in mind, and Republican legislative leaders now appear resigned to letting him get his way.
While DeSantis’s new map leaves the current line-up of seats in South Florida intact, he’s rejiggered the lines in Tampa Bay to make the 13th District in Pinellas County (currently held by Democrat Charlie Crist) more Republican and also made changes in metro Orlando to give the currently competitive 7th District (held by Democrat Stephanie Murphy) a decidedly Republican tilt.
Currently, there are 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats in Florida’s House delegation. Under the new map, there will be 18 Republican-leaning seats, eight that lean Democratic and two in South Florida that will be competitive but are now both held by Republicans.
Should DeSantis’s map pass as is, the legal fight will commence in two directions.
First, in 2010, Florida voters passed two constitutional amendments, dubbed the Fair Districts amendments, designed to prevent legislators from drawing maps designed to protect incumbents or create partisan advantage. This makes Florida somewhat unique among states by limiting, at least in theory, how far legislators can go in partisan map making.
In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court cited those very amendments in overturning the U.S. House map drawn in 2012 and imposing a new one, which created the districts that Lawson and Murphy won.
However, thanks to appointments by DeSantis and his predecessor as governor, Rick Scott, the state’s high court is more conservative that it was in 2015, and there is speculation the justices will look more favorably on legislators’ handiwork this time around.
But what also remains as a potential impediment to DeSantis’s best-laid plans is the federal Voting Rights Act. Although Florida no longer has to get clearance from the Justice Department for its maps, they still must conform to the act’s purpose of maximizing minority voting representation.
North Florida has sent an African-American representative to Congress continuously since 1992; DeSantis’s proposed map would almost certainly end that representation for the foreseeable future, which will certainly raise voting rights concerns.
It would also have the effect of reducing the number of black Congress members from the Sunshine State from five to four. (Those numbers include Republican Byron Donalds, who represents a mostly white district in Southwest Florida; South Florida Democrats Federica Wilson and Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick; and Democrat Val Demings from Orlando.)
That would leave Florida’s black representation in the congressional delegation at about 14%, the same as the state’s black voting age population – which could be an argument in the map’s favor despite the loss of the North Florida seat.
And the final arbiter of a federal challenge to DeSantis’s new map might very well be the U.S. Supreme Court, whose conservative justices seem ready and eager to wade into the issue of voting rights.
In a larger sense, the fight over the maps also shows how DeSantis, in just four short years, has come to amass enough power to bring legislative leaders to heel – in this case, even against their better judgment.
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Freshmen group includes youngest member in nearly 60 years, wave of Republican women
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
WASHINGTON (CFP) — Members of the new 117th Congress will be sworn into office on Sunday, including 25 new Southern U.S. House members and two new Southern senators.
The Southern House freshmen include seven Republican women, part of a wave elected in November that more the doubled the number of GOP women in the chamber, and 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who is the youngest member of the House sworn in since 1965.
Also among the new Southern House members is former White House doctor Ronny Jackson, whom President Donald Trump tried unsuccessfully to elevate to Veterans Affairs secretary in 2018. He will represent now represent the Texas Panhandle.
Republican Stephanie Bice from Oklahoma City is making history as the first Iranian-American to serve in Congress. Her father emigrated from Iran in the 1970s.
Byron Donalds, the new member representing Southwest Florida, will be one of just two African American Republicans in the House and three in Congress overall.
Full list of new Southern House members at bottom of story
In the Senate, Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, and Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee, will join a Southern contingent that now includes 25 Republicans and just three Democrats, after Tuberville defeated Doug Jones in November.
Lawmakers were sworn in during a rare Sunday session because the Constitution prescribes January 3 as the date for opening a new Congress.
Sunday’s House session is scheduled to include a moment of silence for Republican U.S. Rep.-elect Luke Letlow of Louisiana, who died from COVID-19 days before he was set to be sworn in.
While both the House and Senate were observing coronavirus precautions, including masks and social distancing, one new member from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, was spotted on the floor without a mask, prompting admonishment by House staff.
During orientation for new members, she had dismissed masks — which are required on the House floor — as “oppressive.”
Among the new members sworn in Sunday was one very familiar face — Republican Pete Sessions of Texas, who served 11 terms in the House before being defeated in 2018, then claiming a seat from a different district in November.
Sessions and Jackson are part of a group of seven new members from Texas, marking a turnover in nearly a fifth of the Lone Star State’s delegation amid a wave of retirements. All are Republicans.
Florida has five new members; Georgia, four; North Carolina, three; and Alabama, two. Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia each have one new member. Delegations from Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia were unchanged.
Eleven of the 25 new Southern members are women (seven Republicans and four Democrats), part of the largest group of women (121) ever sworn into a single Congress. The new Congress will also feature a record number of Republican women at 29, up from 13 in the last Congress.
The service of one Southern House member in the 117th Congress will be brief — Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat who will leave to become a senior aide to President-elect Joe Biden once he is sworn in on January 20.
Special elections will be held in Louisiana for Richmond and Letlow’s seats in March; neither are expected to change hands between parties.
The Constitution requires members of the House to be at least 25 years of age, a threshold Cawthorn met in August after winning the Republican primary in his Western North Carolina district. He will be the youngest House member since Jed Johnson Jr., a Democrat who represented Oklahoma for a single term between 1965 and 1967.
Sessions represented a Dallas-area seat during his first stint in the House, which he lost in 2018 to Collin Allred. Rather than try to reclaim it in 2020, he ran in a vacant seat in a district that includes Waco, where he grew up.
Of the 25 new Southern members, 21 were Republicans and just four were Democrats. Overall, Republicans hold 99 Southern seats and Democrats 52, with Letlow’s seat vacant.
Four Southern states — Arkansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia — have no Democrats in their House delegations, while five others — Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — have just one.
In only one Southern state do Democrats hold a majority of seats, Virginia, which is sending seven Democrats and only four Republicans to Washington.
Here is a list of new Southern House members, by state:
Kat Kammack, R, 3rd District (Gainesville, North-Central Florida)
Scott Franklin, R, 15 District (Lakeland, eastern Tampa suburbs)
Byron Donalds, R, 19th District (Fort Myers, Southwest Florida)
Carlos Giménez, R, 26th District (south Miami-Dade, Florida Keys)
Maria Elvira Salazar, R, 27th District (Miami-Dade)
Nikema Williams, D, 5th District (Atlanta)
Carolyn Bourdeaux, D, 7th District (northeast Atlanta suburbs)
Andrew Clyde, R, 9th District (Gainesville, Northeast Georgia)
Marjorie Taylor Greene, R, 14th District (Rome, Northwest Georgia)
Stephanie Bice, R, 5th District (metro Oklahoma City)
Nancy Mace, R, 1st District (Charleston, Low Country)
Diana Harshbarger, R, 1st District (Tri-Cities, East Tennessee)
Pat Fallon, R, 4th District (Northeast Texas)
August Pfluger, R, 11th District (Midland, San Angelo, west-central Texas)
Ronny Jackson, R, 13th District (Amarillo, Wichita Falls, Panhandle)
Pete Sessions, R, 17th District (Waco, central-east Texas)
Troy Nehls, R, 22nd District (western Houston suburbs)
Tony Gonzales, R, 23rd District (West Texas)
Beth Van Duyne, R, 24th District (metro Dallas-Forth Worth)
Bob Good, R, 5th District (Charlottesville, central Virginia)
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In Pinellas County, conservative TV personality Anna Paulina Luna easily defeats establishment pick in GOP U.S. House primary
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
TALLAHASSEE (CFP) — Freshman Republican U.S. Rep. Ross Spano has lost his bid for re-election amid a criminal investigation into his 2018 campaign, while Republicans in Palm Beach County have picked far-right provocateur Laura Loomer — banned from social media for her strident anti-Muslim comments — as their U.S. House nominee, drawing praise from President Donald Trump.
Also in Tuesday’s primary, Kat Cammack won the GOP nomination for the seat being given up by her former boss, U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, in North-Central Florida, while State Rep. Byron Donalds of Naples appears to have taken a step toward adding a rare African American face to House Republican ranks.
Meanwhile, in Pinellas County, conservative TV personality Anna Paulina Luna defeated the pick of the Republican establishment, Amanda Makki, for the right to take on Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in what may be the GOP’s best chance to flip a Florida seat in 2020.
During the campaign, Franklin hammered Spano over an ongoing federal criminal investigation into illegal loans made to his 2018 campaign. The congressman has admitted his campaign violated campaign finance laws but denies any criminal wrongdoing.
Franklin will now face the Democratic primary winner, Alan Cohn, a former investigative journalist, although Democrats’ hopes of flipping the Republican-learning seat probably dimmed with Spano’s demise.
In the 3rd District (Gainesville and North-Central Florida), where Yoho is retiring, 10 Republicans were competing to fill his seat.
Cammack, former Yoho aide from Gainesville, took 25% to edge out Judson Sapp, a businessman from Green Cove Springs, at 20%.
Because Florida does not have primary runoffs, the first-place finisher in Tuesday’s crowded primary won the nomination with a plurality and will be favored in November in the Republican-leaning district, which is mostly rural but includes the University of Florida.
In the Democratic primary, Adam Christensen, a Gainesville businessman, held a lead of less than 700 votes over Tom Wells, a physicist who has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and groups affiliated with Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders
Donalds took 23%, less than 800 votes ahead of the second-place finisher, State House Majority Leader Dane Eagle from Cape Coral. Casey Askar, a Iraqi immigrant businessman from Naples who put $3 million of his own money into the campaign, finished a close third.
The 19th District is heavily Republican, which will make Donalds, who is African American, the prohibitive favorite in November. Currently, there is only one black Republican in the House, U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who is not seeking re-election.
In the 13th District (Pinellas County), Luna took 36% to 29% for Makki, a well-connected former congressional aide and Washington lobbyist who had the backing of House Republican leaders and raised $1.2 million for the race.
But Luna, a staunch defender of Trump on TV, excited the Republican grassroots to raise nearly $1 million and surge from behind, with an endorsement from firebrand Florida U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz.
Crist is one of only two Florida Democrats whose seat is expected to be possibly competitive in 2020, although he won re-election by 15 points in 2018.
The other GOP target is U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy in the 7th District (Orlando and its northern suburbs), where Leo Valentin, an Orlando radiologist, held a 700-vote lead over Richard Goble, a mortgage broker from Lake Mary, with all precincts reporting.
In the 21st District (Palm Beach County), Loomer took 42% to beat five other Republicans for the nomination to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel in November after raising more than $1 million, outpacing even the incumbent.
While Loomer appears to have little chance against Frankel in the heavily Democratic district,, she will be yet another fringe nominee for Republican leaders to defend, after victories by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory in Georgia and Colorado.
Loomer, who describes herself as a “nationalist” but eschews the “alt-right” label, has been banned from a variety of social media sites — and even Uber and PayPal — for anti-Muslim rhetoric, describing herself on Twitter as a #ProudIslamophobe and calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country.
Loomer has also drawn attention to herself for outlandish publicity stunts, including heckling reporters at the Conservative Political Action conference (which got her banned from the event); asking Chelsea Clinton at a book signing to autograph a book for a woman who alleges that the Clinton’s father, the former president, raped her; and interrupting the assassination scene in a performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Ceasar” in Central Park, shouting “this is violence against Donald Trump.”
She has also spread conspiracy theories, including that Omar had married her brother and that some school shootings were staged and survivors coached to talk to the media.
Trump, who had retweeted a fundraising solicitation sent on Loomer’s behalf, praised her win: “Great going Laura. You have a great chance against a Pelosi puppet!”
The president’s Mar-a-Lago estate, which is now his permanent residence, is in the 21st District.