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GOP likely to retain its grip on the Legislature

TALLAHASSEE — Even if Florida votes for a Democrat for president, the state Legislature will remain a Republican domain.

The biggest reason is the political process. Republicans took control of the Florida Senate in 1994 and the House in 1996, ending more than a century of Democratic dominance. That superiority gave the GOP control of the reapportionment of legislative and congressional districts in 2002, which strengthened the party's grip on the legislative branch.

Using computer wizardry and block-by-block demographic data, Republicans drew a slew of safe districts for themselves, just as the Democrats did when they were in control. Heading into the election, the GOP holds 26 of 40 Senate seats and 77 of the 120 House seats.

A record turnout for Democrats won't blunt the political advantage of controlling redistricting, said Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, one of the state's top Democrats.

"It has a lot to do with the way the seats are drawn. They're pretty airtight," Sink said.

Gov. Charlie Crist agrees Republican seats are safe. "(Republicans) have got pretty decent margins and they feel that they're districts are safe," he added.

The result is a handful of races in each chamber, as many as nine in the House and three in the Senate, that appear up for grabs.

According to strategists in both parties, only one Republican-held seat in Tampa Bay gives Democrats a shot at a pickup: the seat held by Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Clearwater, who faces the same Democrat he narrowly beat in 2006, Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor.

Democratic leaders say they hope that the unprecedented resources being poured into Florida by Barack Obama's presidential campaign trickle down to their races.

"We're hoping for a Democratic surge, but nothing is written in stone," said Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, the incoming minority leader.

Republicans are confident. Incoming Senate President Jeff Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican who faces a Democratic challenger, said he believes Republicans will keep their seats because the presidential race has been so tight.

"Because Florida looks like it's going to be a competitive race at the top of the ticket through Election Day, it will have a far less an impact on Senate races than had one candidate run away with it," said Atwater, who's leading challenger Linda Bird.

Florida House

The Democrats' hope is to build on recent successes in the House where there are 28 open seats with no incumbent. Democrats have won nine seats since 2006 that previously were Republican-held and they have had far greater success in 2008 at registering new voters.

Democrats already hold enough seats in both chambers to thwart Republican parliamentary maneuvers, which allows them to occasionally gain compromises from GOP leaders. Every additional seat increases the minority's leverage.

House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands said he's expecting Democrats to pick up three or four seats. But he acknowledges Democrats could lose a couple, such as the seat held by freshman Rep. Tony Sasso of Cocoa Beach, who narrowly won a Republican-heavy district earlier this year in a special election.

Incoming House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, said he believes his party will maintain its dominance in the House. "I still feel confident that on midnight on Nov. 4, we'll still have a strong majority," Sansom said. "What that number will be is hard to predict."

Florida Senate

Of 15 contested Senate seats up for election on Nov. 4, six don't have incumbents but only two are considered possible Democratic pickups. But one Democratic incumbent from Orlando faces a tough fight to keep his seat.

The most competitive race appears to be the bid to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Bill Posey, who is running for Congress. Republican Thad Altman, a contractor and state representative, and Democrat Kendall Moore, a lawyer, are running neck and neck in the east coast district that includes much of Brevard County, Lawson said.

The other hot contest is the Sarasota-area race to replace term-limited Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey. Former Rep. Nancy Detert, a Republican, is running against Democrat Morgan Bentley, a lawyer and local bar association president.

Also in play is the seat held by Orlando Democratic Sen. Gary Siplin, who has been cleared of a criminal charge of misusing state resources. But the charge made him a political target. Republican Belinda Ortiz is his opponent.

Other races to watch in the Florida House

Open seats

• District 9, Tallahassee: Former FSU and pro football star Peter Boulware, a Republican, is outspending Democrat Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda in a district that has long been viewed as safely Democratic.

• District 10, North Florida: Democrat Leonard Bembry and Republican Don Curtis are battling to represent a rural, 10-county district. The outgoing representative, Will Kendrick, was elected as a Democrat but switched to Republican.

• District 21, Palatka: Democrat Linda Myers, a small business owner, is favored to win over Republican Charles Van Zant for the seat held by term-limited Republican Joe Pickens.

• District 81, St. Lucie County: With term-limited Republican Gayle Harrell vacating the seat, and Democrats gaining in registration, Democrat Adam Fetterman faces Republican Michael DiTerlizzi.

Incumbent challenges

• District 48, Northern Pinellas County: Republican Rep. Peter Nehr, elected in 2006, faces a rematch with Democrat Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor.

• District 32, Cocoa Beach: Freshman Democratic Rep. Tony Sasso, who won a special election, faces Republican Steve Crisafulli.

• District 69, Sarasota: Democratic Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, a professor at New College, faces Republican Laura Benson, a former school board member.

• District 83, Palm Beach County: Republican Rep. Carl Domino of Jupiter faces a serious challenge from Democrat Bryan Miller.

GOP likely to retain its grip on the Legislature 10/31/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 12:36pm]
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