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Only 11 seats are in play across the region; Democrats may make small gains
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
(CFP) — Heading toward the November election, just 11 of the South’s 154 U.S. House seats look to be at all in play, a measly 7 percent.
Indeed, in 10 states, no seats are likely to change parties, although results from Louisiana’s late November primary may add to the list. In three of the four states with seats in play–North Carolina, Florida and Virginia–the competitive races are largely the result of new court-ordered House maps, which have disturbed the political equilibrium.
Currently, Republicans hold 116 seats in the South, compared to just 38 for Democrats, or about 75 percent. That GOP dominance is unlikely to budge much.
Overall, Democrats appear poised to pick up at least two seats in Florida and one in Virginia, while Republicans are favored to pick up at least one seat in Florida. There are three seats–two in Florida and one in Texas–that are out-and-out toss-ups. Thus, a net gain of five seats for Democrats in the South would be a good night.
Here are the 11 races to watch:
Florida 2: This seat, anchored in the Florida Panhandle around Tallahassee, is currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham. In redrawing the Sunshine State’s map, the Florida Supreme Court removed a chunk of black voters and part of Tallahassee from the district in order to redraw the adjacent 5th District, making what had been a swing seat substantially more Republican. Graham, the only Democrat to take away a Republican seat anywhere in the South in 2014, looked at her odds and decided not to run again, for good reason. Republicans nominated Panama City urologist Neal Dunn, who should have little problem here. RATING: GAIN GOP
Florida 5: This seat, held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, was the primary offender in the Supreme Court ruling that the House map was unconstitutional. Over Brown’s strenuous objections, the justices ordered an extreme makeover; the district now starts in Jacksonville and heads due west to Tallahassee, making it less black and more Republican. Brown, who has been indicted on federal corruption charges, was bounced in the primary by Al Lawson, a former state lawmaker from Tallahassee. The GOP had some hope of a takeaway with Brown in the race, but those hopes were likely dashed with her primary loss. RATING: PROBABLY DEM
Florida 7: Republican U.S. Rep. John 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 will face political newcomer Stephanie Murphy, a college professor and former national security professional, who was the only Democrat to file against Mica. RATING: PROBABLY GOP
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 have little problem in November. RATING: GAIN DEM
Florida 13: This swing district in the Tampa Bay area will feature a high voltage smackdown between Republican U.S. Rep. 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. With Jolly out, this would have been a Democratic pick-up. That’s still probable but much less certain with the incumbent back in the race. RATING: PROBABLY DEM
Florida 18: This seat, which includes part of Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast, is a classic swing district now held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who gave it up to run for the U.S. Senate. 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 in what is likely to be a high-profile fight to the finish. RATING: TOSS-UP
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, Republican U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, will face a rematch against the man he beat by less than 5,800 votes in 2014, former Democratic U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia. RATING: TOSS-UP
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 is U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, who 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. With a 55 percent Latino population and Donald Trump at the head of the GOP ticket, Hurd may be battling for his life. RATING: TOSS-UP
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 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 in the redrawn district would add a second African-American congressman to the state’s delegation. RATING: GAIN DEM
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. RATING: PROBABLY GOP
Virginia 10: This district, which starts in the western D.C. suburbs and stretches out to West Virginia, is held by Republican U.S. Rep. Barbara Comstock and is at the top of the Democrats’ wish list. 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. RATING: PROBABLY GOP
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford ask judge to delay redrawing map until after November’s election
♦By Rich Shumate, Chickenfriedpolitics.com editor
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (CFP) — Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature won’t appeal a judge’s ruling that the U.S. House map drawn in 2011 was unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
But Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford are urging Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis not to order the map redrawn until the end of the current election cycle, noting that ballots have already gone out to military and overseas voters for the August 26 primary.
“Any attempt to change the districts at this late stage of the 2014 elections process would cause chaos and confusion and would threaten the rights of our deployed military voters,” Gaetz and Weatherford said in a July 15 joint statement.
“It has been the practice in other states and in Florida to remedy maps at a future election so as not to disrupt and disenfranchise voters.”
In his July 10 order striking down the map, Lewis did not indicate when or how it might be redrawn. But attorneys for the plaintiffs who brought the suit, including the League of Women Voters, have said they wank the judge to change the map immediately.
The suit arose over two constitutional amendments Florida voters approved in 2010 designed to limit political gerrymandering. Under the new rules, districts cannot be drawn to benefit any political party and must be geographically compact.
However, the amendments left redistricting in the hands of legislators, rather than turning it over to an independent outside panel.
Lewis found two congressional maps — the 5th District and the 10th District — were drawn to benefit Republicans. While he rejected specific challenges to several other districts, bringing those two districts into compliance would likely trigger revisions across the state’s 27 districts.
Although Democrats are highly competitive in statewide races, Republicans hold a 17-10 majority in Florida’s congressional delegation under the map drawn by the GOP-controlled legislature.
Lewis was also highly critical of the behind-the-scenes role Republican political consultants played in drawing the map, which was supposed to be apolitical.
“They made a mockery of the legislature’s proclaimed transparent and open process of redistricting by doing all of this in the shadow of that process, utilizing the access it gave them to the decision makers, but going to great lengths to conceal from the public their plan and their participation in it,” Lewis said.
The 5th District, held by Democratic U.S. Rep Corrine Brown, is a majority black district that meanders from Jacksonville over to Gainesville and then down to Orlando. At one point, it is the width of a highway.
The 10th District, held by Republican U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, is anchored in central Florida west of Orlando. But it has an appendage that wraps around Orlando to take in GOP voters to the east in Seminole County.
Legislative leaders have said they drew the districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act: Brown’s to create a majority black district and Webster’s to create a neighboring district in which Latino voters would have influence.
But Lewis ruled that a majority black district could have been drawn that was more compact and that putting those Republican voters in Webster’s district was unlikely to increase Latino influence.
Brown has joined with Republican leaders in defending the map,
“Minority communities do not live in compact, cookie-cutter like neighborhoods, and excessive adherence to district ‘compactness,’ while ignoring the maintenance of minority access districts, fragments minority communities across the state,” she said in a statement.
To comply with the Voting Rights Act, Republican legislators across the South have created legislative and congressional districts with black majorities, which, in order to capture as many black voters as possible, are often oddly shaped.
Because the black vote is overwhelmingly Democratic, adjacent districts have become more Republican. At the congressional level, this has meant that white Democrats have virtually disappeared, and the GOP dominates House delegations.
Florida’s 2010 constitutional amendments added a new wrinkle by forbidding both use of party considerations in redistricting and requiring geographic compactness, neither of which are required in other Southern states.