New Senate maps will shake up House campaigns

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Florida house. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
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TALLAHASSEE — When most members of the Florida House look in the mirror, they see a state senator looking back at them.

That dynamic will be on full display during the 2016 election cycle after a legal challenge led to redrawing of the state Senate districts. Along with the new maps came opportunities that will boost the number of former House members in the upper chamber. They currently hold 31 of the Senate’s 40 seats.

Roughly 15 House members are now considering running for Senate seats, a dynamic that has the political rumor mill spinning in the wake of the legal challenge.

Combined with the fact that 30 House districts will have no incumbent running in 2016, more than 35 percent of the chamber could be new members next year.

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“I do expect there to be more,” Kevin Sweeny, political operations director for the Florida Justice Association, said of churn in the House. “People see a lot of opportunity out there.”

As things settle down and deals are cut determining who is going to run in winnable – sometimes open – Senate seats, the number will likely come down. But as the dominos fall, the redistricting ruling will almost certainly end up have a big impact on both chambers.

One example is Senate District 1 in the western portion of the panhandle. The new maps drew incumbent Greg Evers, a Milton Republican, out of the seat, which prompted rumors that all three Republican House members in the area – Mike Hill, Clay Ingram, Doug Broxson – are considering a run.
In the newly created Senate District 8, which covers Alachua, Putnam and portions of Marion Counties, there is also no incumbent. Four House Republicans – Jimmie Smith, Dennis Baxley, and Keith Perry – are all considering a run. The Democrat in the race is likely going to be former state senator and chairman of the Florida Democratic Party Rod Smith. Barack Obama won in the district by 1 point in 2012, so it’s seen as a potential pickup for Democrats, but it has enough Republicans to keep the race competitive.

The incoming speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, is in charge of coordinating, recruiting, and fundraising for all GOP House races. He said that the fact more House members are considering jumping into Senate races is not impacting his strategy.
“We will work hard and do what we do every election cycle,” he said.

With a lot of uncertainty on the map, organizations that take part in multiple campaigns are left trying to stretch their resources.

“Budgets don’t really change, you have a lot of tough decisions to make,” said Democratic consultant Steve Schale.

He used the example of the Florida Democratic Party’s House campaigns operation, which he coordinated in during the 2006 election cycle.

“They historically raise $4 to 5 million, but there are now more races,” he said.
What will help ease some pressure at statewide parties is that many of the races are not in swing seats. It means they don’t have to invest heavily in primary races. Of the Senate’s 40 districts, 10 were won by Obama or Mitt Romney by less than 5 points, while 25 had at least 10-point margins of victory.

“I think we will be OK because most of the seats with the biggest impact are safe seats,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat who as incoming minority leader coordinates her party’s House races.

Cruz herself had been rumored to run against House Majority Leader Dana Young in a Hillsborough County seat created as part of the redistricting process. Cruz says she won’t seek the seat.

“It would cost $4 million,” Cruz said. “I could win it this year, but it’s a two-year seat I would have to raise $4 million again and probably not hold it.”

It’s a reference to the fact that in presidential elections, swing seats are easier for Democrats to win because their base comes out in larger numbers.

Cruz said the speculation about her potential bid for the Senate has not impacted other races, but some say the perception that she could leave her post as incoming minority leader could have an impact.

“Janet is right to give the seat a good look, but the uncertainty around raising money and recruiting candidates because there is no assurances of who the leader can be tough,” Schale said.

The influx of new Republican freshmen will also impact the speaker’s race for a two-year term beginning in 2022.

Jacksonville Republican Paul Renner has much of Tallahassee’s Republican establishment behind him and is seen as the front-runner, but 2016 has the potential of bringing in a lot of members who are uncommitted. Also jockeying for the post are rep. Jamie Grant of Tampa and Randy Fine, a candidate for a Brevard County House seat.

“There is no question you now add a significant amount of people that will be casting a ballot” in the speaker’s race. Schale said. “I like Paul a lot and he is from Jacksonville, an area that made up roughly half of the freshmen Republican class, but it now makes up a quarter or a third.”

Off the campaign trail, an influx of new members also has implication once lawmakers return to Tallahassee for legislative session.

“It depends on who comes in, but you will rely more heavily on your veterans,” said Corcoran, whose freshmen class had 35 members. “As you saw in our class, it did not us take long to hit the road running, and I suspect we would see that again.”

He said that there could be also a big impact on the Senate as House members seen as more ideologically conservative take up offices on the other side of the building.

“When more conservative members go over there, you will probably see a more conservative shift” in the Senate, he said.

As a result of the new maps, Democrats are expected to pickup two or three Senate seats in 2016, but Republicans would still maintain a six- or seven-seat advantage. Sweeny, with the Florida Justice Association, says that it could become easier for the House get legislation through  the Senate that in recent years was killed in that chamber by Republican leaders.

“I think that is correct,” he said. “I think with the leadership you have seen in the past couple years move up in the House, you will see bills that may not have moved in the past move.”