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Florida Democrats flub chance to gain seats in Legislature

As Barack Obama surged to victory in Florida on Tuesday, the state's familiar outline turned a bright blue on the cable networks' maps.

Do not adjust your set: Florida is just as red as ever in Tallahassee, where vital decisions are made on taxes, spending and the shape of 160 legislative and 25 (soon to be 26) congressional districts.

So even as Florida Democrats toasted Obama's historic victory, they were flogging themselves over a missed opportunity that may not come their way again — and rightfully so. They had a chance to make much-needed gains in the Legislature, and they didn't, and that has consequences for the party and the state.

Republicans control the Senate, 26-14, and the House, 76-44, with two Democratic House seats possibly headed for machine recounts.

The Senate's partisan makeup remains unchanged. The House, with its smaller districts and more strident partisanship, is where Democrats dreamed of gaining three to six seats.

They got one. But for a few hundred votes, they would have lost two others — and this in an election with Obama atop the ticket.

How could this happen?

Several factors are to blame, starting with the absence of strategist Steve Schale, who was busy running Obama's Florida effort. (He helped Democrats capture nine House seats in the past two years).

House Democrats, under the inexperienced leadership of Minority Leader Franklin Sands, seem to have spread their money too thin in many races, rather than focusing on a handful where their chances were best.

How do we know this? In nine House races, five of which were for open seats with no incumbent, the losing Democrat got between 47 and 49 percent of the vote. More money, more effort, and the result might have been different.

Some Democrats had suggested a "Don't Stop at the Top" campaign aimed at getting young voters and first-timers to pick Democrats all the way down the ticket. But outside of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, it didn't happen.

That's an embarrassing string of near-misses, including the North Pinellas seat where Republican Peter Nehr won his close rematch with Democrat Carl Zimmermann.

We're left with a Legislature that's more conservative than the state as a whole, according to Florida State University political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith. He said it's the logical result of gerrymandered districts drawn for maximum partisan advantage.

"The districts are such that it's very hard to knock off an incumbent, Democrat or Republican," he said. "They can do it with great precision to protect incumbents."

That's not how Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, the new House speaker, sees it.

"I think we have momentum back on the Republican side," he said. "Florida is still very conservative."

The inability of Democrats to flip more than one seat allows Republican leaders to engage in the kind of spin that House Majority Leader Adam Hasner did after the polls closed: "Floridians spoke clearly that the House's agenda is the right agenda for Florida," which he defined, in part, as "lower taxes and fiscal discipline."

For Democrats in the Florida House, it's going to be a long couple of years.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Florida Democrats flub chance to gain seats in Legislature 11/07/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 10, 2008 12:51pm]
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