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The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Buzz's Florida congressional vulnerability rankings for 2014



It’s still 16 months until Election Day 2014, but Democrats and Republicans are already plotting strategies for defending their own vulnerable congressional incumbents and for ousting the other party’s weakest lawmakers.

For the third straight cycle, the Buzz is handicapping the most vulnerable U.S. House seats in the Florida delegation. The following represents our first attempt this election cycle to rank incumbent House members from Florida by how vulnerable their party is to losing the seat. We have rated the seats in descending order, based on the likelihood that they will switch party control in November 2014.

Currently, Florida’s U.S. House delegation includes 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats. We see only the first three seats on the list below as being genuinely competitive. Beyond these three, the degree of vulnerability drops significantly, only becoming genuinely vulnerable if a strong challenger to the incumbent enters the race and shows some staying power.

1. District 18: Rep. Patrick Murphy (D). Murphy won his seat (with a margin of fewer than 2,000 votes) by ousting one-term GOP Rep. Allen West in a high-profile, expensive and nasty race in November 2012. Murphy is well aware of the challenges facing his re-election; the Treasure Coast district backed Mitt Romney in 2012 by a 52-48 margin. So he’s put together a moderate record (bucking his party on a balanced-budget requirement and support for the Keystone XL pipeline), focusing on issues of extremely local interest (such as beach renourishment) and raising money at a speedy clip (he raised $520,000 in the second quarter of 2013, leaving him with $1 million in the bank. Murphy’s fundraising prowess appears to have scared off two potential GOP challengers, St. Lucie County Commissioner Tod Mowery and businessman Gary Uber. But several Republicans remain in the mix, including Juno Beach City Commissioner Ellen Andel, former state Rep. Carl Domino, state Rep. Gayle Harrell and former state Rep. Adam Hasner, who lost an open-seat race to Democrat Lois Frankel in Florida’s 22nd District in 2012.

2. District 26: Rep. Joe Garcia (D).This district is neck and neck with Murphy’s for No. 1 on our list. Garcia has a slightly more favorable district to defend than Murphy does -- the Miami-area district backed Obama in 2012 by a 53 percent-46-percent margin -- but he’s taken on lots of baggage during the six months he’s been on Capitol Hill. Two top aides have already resigned amid allegations about absentee-ballot fraud in the 2012 Democratic primary. The revelations are particularly embarrassing because Garcia won the seat in 2012 by ousting a Republican, David Rivera, who was hobbled by ethics troubles. In 2012, Garcia benefited from a strong get-out-the-vote effort by the Barack Obama campaign, which targeted younger Cuban-American voters, who are less solidly Republican than members of previous generations. That tailwind won’t be available in a midterm election. Garcia’s fundraising has been solid -- he raised $440,000 in the second quarter and had $800,000 cash on hand -- but GOP challengers are circling. The field of potential candidates includes Miami-Dade school board member Carlos Curbelo, state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, former Miami-Dade Commission chairman Joe Martinez and Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall.

3. District 2: Rep. Steve Southerland (R). This district, which includes Democratic areas around Tallahassee as well as more Republican territory including Panama City; leans Republican, backing Romney in 2012 by a 52 percent-47 percent margin. But Democrats see an opportunity thanks to a strong recruit: Gwen Graham, the daughter of popular former Sen. Bob Graham. Southerland, a funeral director and tea party activist, won office in 2010 by ousting conservative Democrat Allen Boyd, then won a second term last fall by a five-point margin over former state Sen. Al Lawson. Graham, who could face another primary bid by Lawson next year, is styling herself as a moderate, which strategists say is a requirement for winning the district (though she once worked for Howard Dean, a liberal Democrat). Graham is also expected to draw on her deep political connections to bolster fundraising, although Southerland -- usually considered a weak fundraiser -- reported raising $461,000 in the second quarter, a personal record. The district is one of the state’s cheapest media markets, so even a modest amount of money can go a long way.

4. District 10: Rep. Dan Webster (R). In 2012, Webster held off a spirited challenge by Val Demings, the daughter of a janitor and a maid who rose to become police chief in Orlando; he won by a 52 percent-48 percent margin. That meant Webster underperformed Romney in the district, as the GOP presidential nominee won by a 54 percent-46 percent margin. Webster still has the edge due to the district’s Republican lean, but Demings could make it a race if she runs again. In the longer term, immigration by non-Cuban Hispanics could eventually make the seat more Democratic.

5. District 22: Rep. Lois Frankel (D). Frankel won a hotly contested open-seat race in 2012 by a surprisingly wide 10-point margin, mirroring Obama’s margin in the Boca Raton-West Palm Beach district. Frankel’s strength has distinctly dropped the district’s vulnerability.

6. District 13: Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R). In their hearts, Democrats know this Tampa Bay-area seat should be competitive -- it went for Obama, though narrowly, in both 2008 and 2012 -- but as long as Young is the incumbent, they know they will have a tough time winning it. Young is in his 22nd term, and while his senior position on the House Appropriations Committee isn’t what it used to be after the banning of earmarks, seniority has paid Young significant dividends. Democratic Attorney Jessica Ehrlich is preparing to make a second run in 2014; she lost by a 16-point margin last fall, meaning lots of Obama voters felt comfortable voting for Young too. Ehrlich says she raised nearly $154,000 for second quarter compared to Young’s $86,000. Still, it’s not clear how she, or another Democrat, does any better until Young exits the stage.

7. District 16: Rep. Vern Buchanan (R). Buchanan has faced a series of ethical questions, but the Democrats don’t seem ready to capitalize in this Sarasota-area seat. In 2012, Buchanan defeated former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald by a 54 percent-46 percent margin, which was essentially in line with the percentage by which Romney defeated Obama in the district.

[Last modified: Monday, July 15, 2013 2:23pm]


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