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The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

The Buzz handicaps the Florida congressional races



As the special election in Pinellas' Congressional District 13 hurtles to a finish next week, it seems like a good time to update our Florida vulnerability rankings.

For the third straight cycle, the Buzz is handicapping the most vulnerable U.S. House seats in the Florida delegation. This is the first update we've done since July 2013. (We'll pick up the pace as Election Day 2014 approaches.) Quite a few of the seats have risen or fallen several notches over the past eight months.

Currently, Florida's U.S. House delegation includes 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats, plus two vacant seats, both of them previously held by Republicans.

The following list ranks incumbent House members from Florida by how vulnerable their party is to losing the seat. The seats are listed in descending order, based on the likelihood that they will switch party control.

1. District 13: Seat left vacant on the death of Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R). Previous ranking: 6

This Tampa Bay-area seat has attracted national attention as a potential bellwether for 2014 congressional races since the district is highly competitive between the parties. Young was a 22-term Republican incumbent, yet voters narrowly went for Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. The March 11 special election pits David Jolly, a former Young aide-turned-lobbyist, against Alex Sink, a former Florida state CFO and narrow loser in the 2010 gubernatorial race, in a big-money showdown. Democrats are cautiously hoping that the patterns of mail-in ballot returns so far suggest a slight boost for Sink. But the race will likely to go down to the wire.

2. District 2: Rep. Steve Southerland (R). Previous ranking: 3

The contest between two-term Republican Southerland, a tea party-aligned funeral director, and Democrat Gwen Graham, the daughter of popular former Sen. Bob Graham, rises one notch on our list, thanks to increasing attention and strong fundraising by the challenger. Graham took in more than $1.3 million and had more than $1 million in the bank during 2013, actually out-raising the incumbent, who raised about $1 million and banked $840,000 over the same period. Though this race has been overshadowed by the all-out push in the District 13 special election, Democratic groups have begun to zero in on Southerland. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee named the seat to its “Red to Blue” program that aids the party’s most promising House challengers, and the political arm of the moderate-to-conservative Democratic Blue Dog Coalition has promised to support Graham. Southerland can expect his weaker financial haul to be bolstered by support from outside groups; the conservative Americans for Prosperity has already aired a pair of ads on his behalf. The district includes Democratic areas around Tallahassee as well as more Republican territory including Panama City; it leans modestly Republican, backing Mitt Romney in 2012.

3. District 26: Rep. Joe Garcia (D). Previous ranking: 2

Garcia remains vulnerable due to the resignation of top aides amid allegations of absentee-ballot fraud in the 2012 Democratic primary. In a close call, we're dropping this race by one slot, partly because the heat on Garcia has eased somewhat, and partly because the GOP still has a primary to sort out. The GOP field includes Miami-Dade school board member Carlos Curbelo, former Miami-Dade Commission chairman Joe Martinez, Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall, Miami lawyer Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck and 2012 candidate Jose Felix Peixoto. Curbelo, a former congressional aide and political consultant, is the frontrunner, particularly after snagging the heavyweight endorsement of former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush. Democrats are hoping the Miami-area district's overall leanings -- voters backed Obama in 2012 by 7 percentage points -- will enable Garcia to win a second term in November.

4. District 18: Rep. Patrick Murphy (D). Previous ranking: 1

Murphy's seat is competitive -- the Treasure Coast district backed Romney in 2012 by a 52-48 margin, and Murphy won it in 2012 by fewer than 2,000 votes. But it's dropping three notches on our list because Murphy has dodged a bullet in the field of GOP challengers. Former GOP state Rep. Adam Hasner, who would have been a strong opponent for Murphy, has opted against a 2014 bid. The remaining Republicans in the hunt include former state Rep. Carl Domino, former Tequesta City Councilman Calvin Turnquest, and former Connecticut state Rep. Alan Schlesinger. The deep-pocketed Domino is considered likeliest to win the nomination, although his two most recent races -- for state Senate and state House -- both ended in primary losses. Murphy, meanwhile, has tried to burnish his moderate and local-oriented credentials, and he's raising money at a good clip. A wave against Democrats could make a difference in a district this narrowly divided, but it remains an open question whether any of the Republicans could take advantage of it.

5. District 16: Rep. Vern Buchanan (R). Previous ranking: 7

This far down our list, the chance of a partisan flip decreases significantly. Buchanan, despite a series of ethical issues, has consistently managed to hold on to his Republican-leaning seat in the Sarasota area. The Democrats have a potentially interesting -- but politically untested -- candidate in Henry Lawrence, who won three Super Bowl rings during his 13-year career with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders. (Democratic State Committeeman Mitch Mallett is also running.) However, national Democrats have yet to boost this contest into the top tier of takeover prospects, so we won’t either.

6. District 10: Rep. Dan Webster (R). Previous ranking: 4

Webster's narrow 2012 re-election victory over Val Demings, the former police chief in Orlando, gave Democrats hope for 2014. But Demings opted to run for Orange County mayor, leaving the Democrats without a top-tier candidate in this GOP-leaning district in central Florida. The current Democratic field includes former Eustis City Commissioner Bill Ferree, Navy veteran Michael McKenna and attorney Shayan Modarres.

7. District 22: Rep. Lois Frankel (D). Previous ranking: 5

Frankel won her seat by defeating Hasner in a hotly contested open-seat race in 2012. But her surprisingly wide 10-point margin over Hasner in the Boca Raton-West Palm Beach district appears to have scared off top-tier challengers for 2014. The GOP field includes artist Andrea Leigh McGee, software engineer Jeremy Rodgers and contractor David Wagie. Neither party is expecting this seat to be anywhere near as competitive as it was two years ago.

8. District 19: Seat left vacant on the resignation of Rep. Trey Radel (R).Previous rating: Not rated

This seat came open when Radel resigned after a cocaine arrest. It’s a solidly Republican district in the Naples-Fort Myers area, so most of the activity is on the GOP side. The presumed frontrunner for the April 22 primary is state Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto. Other contenders include former state Rep. Paige Kreegel -- who had been planning a primary bid against Radel even before the incumbent's downfall -- and businessman Curt Clawson. On the Democratic side, public relations executive April Freeman is the only announced candidate for the June 24 general election. But whoever wins the GOP primary is expected to prevail.

[Last modified: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 4:34pm]


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