No wonder Congress and the Florida Legislature don't reflect mainstream voters from either political party. There are so few competitive races in this state for the U.S. House and the Legislature this year that most voters are left with little or no choice. That is not healthy for democracy, and the predictable result is that the priorities in Washington and Tallahassee are out of step with the priorities in local communities — and voter approval ratings of Congress and the Legislature are in the tank.
In the Legislature, 20 of the 40 Senate seats and all of the 120 House seats are up for grabs. Yet eight Senate Republican incumbents automatically kept their seats because they have no opposition. In the House, 38 seats are automatically filled because no one filed to run against 37 incumbents and one challenger. In Florida's 27-member congressional delegation, four incumbents are unopposed, including Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and Kathy Castor, D-Tampa. But the number of competitive races can be counted on one hand, with fingers left over.
There are a number of reasons for the lack of competition. The legislative and congressional districts still largely favor one political party, despite constitutional amendments that required state lawmakers to draw districts without trying to protect incumbents or political parties. A circuit court judge in Tallahassee is expected to rule soon on whether the congressional districts violated the amendment, and the issue ultimately will go to the Florida Supreme Court.
Second, the fundraising demands for running for the Legislature and Congress are overwhelming. Even legislative candidates regularly raise $250,000 or more, and that rules out virtually anyone who cannot tap into special interest money. The price for running for Congress is even higher, and the outcomes of those races can be decided by outside groups that raise millions and air television attack ads. The result is that too often the only candidates willing to run are independently wealthy or have such modest incomes that they want the government paycheck.
Third, the Florida Democratic Party remains weak even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans and President Barack Obama won the state twice. With U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson the only Democrat elected statewide and Republicans controlling the congressional delegation, the Legislature, the Cabinet and the Governor's Mansion, the Republican Party of Florida remains much better positioned to raise money and recruit attractive candidates.
For representative government to work, voters need to see more viable candidates and more competitive races on Election Day. Florida's changing demographics gradually will help provide more political balance. But in the long run it will take more fairly drawn congressional and legislative districts, and campaign finance reform, to really level the playing field.