House Races: The Florida Bellwether

By Jim Ellis

Sept. 7, 2016 — The general election campaigns are just about set. Now into September, just two primary days remain (Sept. 8: Massachusetts — Sept. 13th: Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island) and only in New Hampshire’s 1st District – a seat that has defeated more incumbents than any district in the nation since 2006 – and the open Delaware at-large CD is there any remaining nomination uncertainty.

Looking at the entire House, the current majority stands at 246 Republicans, 186 Democrats, with three vacancies. Two of the seats with no current Representative are Democratic, that of the late Rep. Mark Takai (D-HI-1) and PA-2, which Rep. Chaka Fattah-D resigned after being convicted on federal corruption charges. The remaining position, coming open today, belongs to Kentucky Republican Ed Whitfield (R-KY-1). The congressman announced a year ago that he would not seek a 12th term and last week made public his plans to leave the House early. All three seats will remain with their respective parties, meaning the effective partisan division is 247R-188D.

In order to re-capture the House majority they lost in the 2010 election, the Democrats must first secure all 188 of their own seats, and then convert 30 Republican districts just to obtain a one-seat margin of control. No statistical forecasting suggests that such an outcome is in sight.

To make major gains, the Dems would have to take major steps forward in Florida. The state Supreme Court’s re-draw of the congressional district lines in the middle of the decade was thought to increase Democratic representation in the 17R-10D delegation by three seats and possibly as many as five. Based upon primary results and general election predictions, it is possible that the Republicans could actually break even or possibly gain a seat.

Rep. Daniel Webster’s (R-Orlando) 10th District will go Democratic in the person of former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings (D). Webster hopped over into the neighboring open 11th CD, which is more favorable Republican territory and won the GOP nomination. Demings convincingly won her primary on Aug. 30 and is the prohibitive favorite to win the general election for a net Democratic gain of one.

Freshman Rep. Gwen Graham (D-Tallahassee) retiring, however, in the radically re-drawn 2nd District means that new GOP nominee Neal Dunn looks to be a sure winner come November. A Dunn victory neutralizes the Democratic pick-up in Orlando.

Two Republican incumbents, David Jolly (R-Pinellas County) and Carlos Curbelo (R-Miami), were targeted for defeat but both still have fighting chances to prevail.

Rep. Jolly, returning to the House race after Sen. Marco Rubio (R) decided to seek re-election, is the underdog against former Gov. Charlie Crist (D-St. Petersburg). Polling suggests the contest is competitive and far from over, however.

In the Curbelo seat, Democratic leaders failed to bring their favored candidate, businesswoman Annette Taddeo, through the primary against former Rep. Joe Garcia, the man Curbelo unseated two years ago. Though the new 26th District is more Democratic than the confines that defined the 2014 contest, a close Garcia primary victory is the exact scenario Curbelo needed to have a reasonable chance of winning in a presidential year.

Finally, in the West Palm Beach area’s 18th District that Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Jupiter) is vacating to run for the Senate, Republicans are now presented with an excellent conversion opportunity. The voters here gave 51 percent of their votes to Mitt Romney in 2012 after providing then-Sen. Barack Obama a similar margin four years earlier. The 18th was one of four districts that the Florida mid-decade redistricting effort left unchanged.

Republicans nominated disabled Afghan War veteran Brian Mast who ran a compelling campaign against five well-heeled Republican opponents. He prevailed with 38 percent of the vote, 11 points more than his closest competitor. Now he faces waste company owner Randy Perkins (D) who some time ago indicated he would not continue to ask strangers for money. The multi-millionaire has already contributed $1 million to his campaign before loaning an additional $1 million. Mast winning here would allow the Republicans to probably break even in this hotly contested congressional delegation, most likely a deathblow to any faint majority hopes the Democratic leadership possesses.

Without significant gains in Florida, the Democrats would be unable to amass enough conversion victories elsewhere to overcome their current deficit.

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