News analysis

Democrats could have won
back Florida’s Senate on Tuesday.
But we already know they won’t.

Florida is not a two-party state. Republicans have dominated state government for the past two decades. This year could have been different. A legal breakthrough changed circumstances so that Democrats had a chance to take back the Senate. But on Election Day Tuesday, that won’t happen. Here’s why.

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Republicans have controlled the Florida Senate since 1996. Because they hold majority power in the upper legislative chamber, Republicans have controlled the process of drawing political boundaries that make up the Senate since 2002.

After Republicans redrew the Senate’s districts in 2012, 25 of the 40 districts had more Republican than Democratic registered voters — despite the state having 537,216 more Democrats than Republicans. Here are the districts they drew.

The Legislature’s districts packed Democratic voters into a few mega-Democratic districts. This isolated them into fewer districts, which is called “gerrymandering.” The bluer districts here are more Democratic, and the redder districts are more Republican.

Here are the 11 districts where the Democrats had a majority of at least 60,000 voters in 2012. In the four darkest blue districts, Democrats had a voter edge of 100,000 or more.

Here’s that same map for Republicans. The most Republican district had an edge of just below 61,000.

In 2015, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the districts were unconstitutional because they gave the Republican Party an unfair advantage. The districts were redrawn like this.

As of Oct. 18, 21 districts have more registered Democrats than Republicans. The remaining 19 districts are majority Republican. Overall, Democrats lead Republicans statewide by a margin of 326,227 registered voters.

With more than half the districts holding a Democratic majority, and a controversial presidential election that could drive up turnout, the Democrats should have a shot at winning the Senate on Nov. 8. But that won’t happen.

Let’s look first at the seats that should be in play this year. Fifteen so-called “swing” districts are the most evenly divided between Democratic and Republican voters.

Seven of these swing districts have voter registration numbers showing Republicans with a narrow edge over Democrats. That means these districts lean Republican, but not nearly as much as the 12 other districts with a majority of GOP voters.

Yet Democrats didn’t field candidates in five of the seven districts where Republicans had their slimmest majorities.

In the two districts where Democrats did challenge, it’s not competitive.

For instance, in District 36, no one has contributed to the campaign of Democratic candidate Anabella Grohoski Peralta since Sept. 23. She’s taking on incumbent Sen. René Garcia.

And incoming Senate President Joe Negron faces Bruno Moore, a freelance writer and waiter.

While Republicans aren’t facing a single serious challenge in any of their seven most vulnerable districts, Democrats face daunting obstacles in all of their eight most vulnerable districts. In one case, they’ve already lost.

Even though there are 28,000 more Democratic voters in District 8, the Republican candidate, House incumbent Rep. Keith Perry, has outraised Democratic former state Sen. Rod Smith.

In District 13, near Orlando, Democrats have 35,000 more registered voters. Linda Stewart fended off an intra-party primary challenge that emptied her campaign account. Her longshot GOP opponent had $82,219 left to spend by mid-October. Stewart has about half of that.

In District 18, Democrats have 9,600 more voters. Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, has raised $1.2 million. Democrat Bob Buesing has raised less than half that. A third-party candidate, strip-club owner Joe Redner, is peeling away support from Buesing.

In District 39, Democrats have a 4,700-voter edge, yet they didn’t field a candidate until the day before the deadline. Republican incumbent Sen. Anitere Flores filed to run for the seat in 2013, giving her a three-year head start.

Meanwhile in District 40, Democrats had a 7,600-voter advantage, but fought among themselves during the primary while the Republicans ran only one candidate. Incumbent Sen. Dwight Bullard won, but now has less to spend.

Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla is challenging Democratic Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez in a Miami district with 8,100 more Democrats. Diaz de la Portilla has raised $1.4 million — about three times the $553,630 raised by Javier Rodriguez.

District 22, where Democrats have a 10,300 voter edge, covers parts of conservative Lake and Polk counties, where “Dixiecrat” voters skew Republican. Incumbent Sen. Kelli Stargel, has raised $486,049, 20 times what her opponent, Debra Wright, has raised.

Then there’s District 20. It covers parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties. Democrats had a lead of 1,500 voters over Republicans. And yet, Tom Lee, an incumbent GOP senator, won the seat automatically in June. Why? The Democrats didn’t field anyone.

In total, Republicans have already clinched 15 seats because they didn’t have a Democratic opponent.

They are a lock in another district where they outnumber Democrats by 50,000 and the Democratic candidate has only raised less than $2,000.

And they are safe bets in five more races. That’s already 21 seats — a majority.

Democrats, by comparison, have clinched eight races because they weren’t opposed by Republicans, are locks in two more races, and are safe bets in four seats. That leaves them with 14 seats — what they have now.

That leaves five toss-ups that the Democrats have a shot to win. If they win all five, which they are not favored to do, the best they can hope for is 21-19.

The Democrats aren’t in a position to win the Senate because they didn’t field enough candidates.

Contact Lauren Flannery at [email protected]. Follow @LaurenFlannery3. Contact Michael Van Sickler at [email protected]. Follow @mikevansickler.

0-50,000 voter edge
100,000 or more