A new wave: Florida voters will have many more choices on 2018 ballot

Friday's candidate qualifying deadline produced a very big field of first-time challengers.
Published June 22, 2018|Updated June 22, 2018

TALLAHASSEE — Florida may or may not see a blue wave this fall, but it's already experiencing a new wave.

A flood of new candidates for seats in the state Legislature, many of them Democratic women, met Friday's deadline to get on the ballot and give voters many more choices than in past election cycles.

The newcomers include more than 80 women legislative challengers across the state.

Some are disgusted with President Donald Trump and a dysfunctional Congress, and some are motivated by #MeToo or #NeverAgain movements or they want to ride that blue wave — even though Republicans insist there won't be one.

"I got tired of screaming at the television set," said Carol Lawrence, a lawyer and Realtor who's running as a Democrat against Republican Rep. David Santiago of Deltona and is a first-time candidate at age 76. "If more women were in positions of power in this country, we'd have a lot fewer conflicts. We need to come to a place of peace in this world."

The Florida Democratic Party, widely criticized for lackluster recruitment of challengers in past elections, stepped up its efforts and fielded candidates in all 20 Senate seats on the ballot.

That's a marked difference from two years ago,when nine GOP senators won new terms without opposition along with three Democrats.

The Democratic Party's executive director, Juan Penalosa, said the party worked with like-minded groups, such as Ruth's List and The Women's March, to find more candidates.

"Republicans are talking about Trump and Russia and sanctuary cities," Penalosa said. "We think average voters care more about having to work three jobs, not having affordable health care and the lack of a quality public education system."

Republicans hold a 23-16 advantage in the Florida Senate, and one seat in Pinellas County is vacant. Democrats say they are targeting six seats that have been held by the GOP, including three in Tampa Bay.

They are pinning their hopes on Rep. Janet Cruz, who's challenging Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa; Carrie Pilon, who's opposing Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg; and former Rep. Amanda Murphy, who's seeking the North Pinellas seat vacated in December by former Sen. Jack Latvala.

Another key Senate battleground is Northwest Miami-Dade, where moderate GOP Sen. Rene Garcia is term-limited and where Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters each make up about one-third of the eligible voters in Senate District 36.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. is the GOP's choice, and Democrats recruited Coral Gables firefighter David Perez, who drew a primary challenge from Julian Santos. Democrats made an unsuccessful courtship of former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, but they say it's a competitive seat they can win.

Democrats also like their chances in and around Gainesville with first-time candidate Kayser Enneking, a UF anesthesiology professor and mother of two children who will be part of a Democratic effort in favor of Medicaid expansion. Enneking hopes to unseat Republican Sen. Keith Perry.

Even in a year when Trump is sure to be the biggest factor in state politics, it's a tall order for Democrats to pick off Republican-held Senate seats.

With better get-out-the-vote efforts, the GOP has outperformed Democrats in recent midterm elections in Florida, and party leaders predict that trend will continue this fall.

State Republican Party chairman Blaise Ingoglia scoffed at the prospect of a blue wave or a massive Democratic resistance to Trump in his first midterm election.

"Most people will vote on the economy, and we have a great economy now, especially in the state of Florida," said Ingoglia, a GOP lawmaker from Spring Hill. "I highly doubt that people are going to vote against this economy."

Ingoglia said Gov. Rick Scott, who will be at the top of the GOP ticket as a U.S. Senate candidate, will spend as much as it takes to ensure a strong Republican turnout in November.

Ingoglia said the surge in the number of candidates was overblown, and that Democrats tried to recruit as many challengers as possible to force Republicans to stretch their money and resources in more races.

Another sign of change is that candidates with no party affiliation made the November ballot in 14 state House seats, giving voters alternatives to major party candidates. However, no independent has been elected to the state Legislature since the 1970s.

The burst of civic activism sweeping across Florida means a lot fewer incumbents in Tallahassee will return to office without opposition.

Twenty of 40 Senate seats are up for grabs this fall, and in a shift from recent elections, only one senator, freshman Democrat Lauren Book of Plantation, did not draw an opponent.

Republican Wilton Simpson of Trilby drew a last-minute challenge from Democrat Michael Cottrell of Spring Hill.

"There's been an awakening for a lot of people. I think people are really fed up," said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point.

In the 120-member Florida House, 25 members — 19 Democrats and six Republicans — sailed to new two-year terms unopposed compared to 31 two years ago.

The lucky ones included Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, the incoming House speaker.

Republicans have controlled both houses of the Legislature since 1996. The GOP has a 23-16 advantage in the Senate, with one seat vacant, and holds a 76-41 advantage in the House, with three seats vacant.

In what is believed to be a record in Florida, 20 candidates for governor paid filing fees to have their names on the ballot including eight Republicans, seven Democrats, a Reform Party candidate and four with no party affiliation.

Voters will dramatically winnow the field for that race and many others in a statewide primary on Aug. 28, when both parties nominate candidates for governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner.

Some new candidates are the longest of long shots, such as Noel Howard, a Navy vet from Largo and a no-party candidate for governor who was one of the last to file papers with his service dog, Karma, alongside.

Howard, who favors the full legalization of marijuana, will appear on the November ballot as "Grassy Noel," a nickname he claims he picked up in the Navy. He travels the state in a colorfully decorated minivan with the slogan: "Abandoned veteran for governor."

"I believe cannabis is going to heal America," Howard said.

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley contributed to this report.