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The Buzz’s Florida congressional vulnerability rankings, post-primary edition

There's some notable shifts in the rankings.
Florida's congressional delegation has some competitive races this year. (Times files)
Florida's congressional delegation has some competitive races this year. (Times files)
Published Sep. 10, 2018
Updated Sep. 10, 2018

It's been about five months since we last ranked Florida's congressional seats based on how likely they are to flip control during November's midterm elections. But despite the intervening campaigning and the results of the Aug. 28 primary, the broad outline remains the same: seven seats at least somewhat vulnerable to a Democratic pickup, and just one seat that seems vulnerable to being flipped by the Republicans.

The most notable shifts in the current rankings are the heightened risks for GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan and the somewhat lessened vulnerability for GOP Rep. Brian Mast.

The districts below are ranked in descending order from most vulnerable to least vulnerable. We have sorted the districts into four categories — "highly vulnerable," "vulnerable," "potentially vulnerable" and "minimally vulnerable." The seats in the delegation not listed below are not considered vulnerable at this time.


1. District 27: Open seat (Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R, is retiring)
This seat representing Miami and Miami Beach remains No. 1 on our list, as it has been since the start of the election cycle. It was previously held by moderate Republican Ros-Lehtinen, but Hillary Clinton won the 2016 presidential race in the district by 19 points. The Democratic primary frontrunner — former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary and University of Miami president Donna Shalala — prevailed, though only by a modest 32 percent-28 percent margin over state Rep. David Richardson, who ran an aggressive campaign to Shalala's left. On the Republican side, former Univision journalist Maria Elvira Salazar soundly defeated the initial frontrunner, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, 41 percent-26 percent. Republicans are happy that Salazar is advancing to the general election – she is well-known locally from her TV career, is of Cuban descent, and was the recipient of Ros-Lehtinen's endorsement. Shalala, by contrast, will have to compete as a non-Hispanic in a 50 percent Hispanic district. That said, this seat remains a tough hold for the GOP, given the party registration numbers (142,000 Democrats, 129,000 Republicans and 128,000 non-party-affiliated at most recent count), as well as the pro-Democratic environment of this election cycle and the high cost of airtime in Miami.


2. District 26: Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R)
While we are leaving Cubelo in the No. 2 spot and in the "vulnerable" category, he probably has better odds of winning now than he did during our last look in April. Curbelo has worked hard to distance himself from President Donald Trump, and Curbelo is Cuban in a heavily Cuban district while Democratic nominee Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is not. (She is, however, an Ecuadorian immigrant; the district is 69 percent Hispanic). Mucarsel-Powell — a nonprofit consultant who is fresh off a 2016 race for an overlapping state Senate seat where she won 46 percent of the vote — is expected to run a credible race and should have the political winds at her back. Not only did Clinton win the district by 16 points in 2016, but the district's party registration leans even more strongly toward the Democrats than the 27th District does – 150,000 Democrats, 128,000 Republicans and 137,000 non-party-affiliated. If Mucarsel-Powell finds it hard to dent Curbelo's advantages of incumbency, however, look for this district to slip down the list.

3. District 16: Vern Buchanan (R) (Previous ranking: 4)
The race in this Sarasota-based district climbs a spot in our rankings and shifts from "potentially vulnerable" to "vulnerable." The reason: The incumbent, who endured a years-long ethics inquiry (in which he was ultimately cleared), is now facing unwanted publicity for allegedly buying a $3 million yacht right after voting for the Republican tax bill. The deep-pocketed incumbent also faces a stronger-than-usual challenger, prominent Democratic attorney David Shapiro, who won the primary, 55 percent-45 percent, over 2016 nominee Jan Schneider. Trump won this district by about 10 points, but it includes many suburban neighborhoods where Democrats have recently been doing well.

4. District 18: Rep. Brian Mast (R) (Previous ranking: 3)
This race moves down a spot, thanks to the fact that Mast, an Army bomb-disposal expert in Afghanistan who lost both legs below his knees, has had a steadier few months than Buchanan. Trump won the Palm Beach and Treasure Coast district by nine points — five points more than the margin Mitt Romney won it by in 2012. But Mast's efforts to tighten regulations on AR-15s and similar weapons — a contrarian stance for a Republican — has provided some distance between himself and Trump, which may be helpful in this political environment. Democrats were relieved when Lauren Baer, a former Obama administration official, won the primary with relative ease. She would be the first openly LGBT person elected from Florida if she wins. All told, strategists say the race seems less competitive than it was a few months ago.


5 (tie). District 7: Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D)
This remains the only Democratic-held congressional seat in Florida that is looking even somewhat vulnerable. But Murphy — the first Vietnamese-American woman to win a seat in Congress — isn't exactly teetering. Her Orlando-area district voted for Clinton by seven points and is home to a substantial Puerto Rican population. She will be well-funded and has made a concerted effort to strike moderate positions, an approach believed to be in line with the district. Republicans have a solid candidate in state Rep. Mike Miller; he won 54 percent in a three-way primary. But Miller will be rowing upstream in a district with 173,000 Democrats, 164,000 Republicans and 138,000 non-party-affiliated voters.

5 (tie). District 6: Open seat (Rep. Ron DeSantis, R, running for governor) (Previous ranking: 6)
This Daytona Beach-St. Augustine open seat — currently represented by DeSantis, who just won the GOP nomination for governor — remains a difficult one for Democrats to flip, with 206,000 Republicans, 177,000 Democrats and 152,000 non-party-affiliated voters on the rolls and a 16-point Trump margin in 2016. In the primary, GOP voters chose a candidate firmly in the mold of DeSantis — Mike Waltz, a former Green Beret, adviser to Dick Cheney, and Fox News contributor. Democrats remain high on Nancy Soderberg, a former ambassador to the United Nations and deputy national security adviser to President Bill Clinton who easily won her primary. Democrats hope that Republicans, grappling with a large number of Democratic targets nationally, will rush to defend endangered incumbents and leave open seat candidates like Waltz to fend for themselves.

7 (tie). District 15: Open seat (Rep. Dennis Ross, R, is retiring)
This seat, which stretches from the Tampa suburbs to Lakeland and backed Trump by 10 points, was already a sleeper contest when we last compiled our rankings, but since then, Ross decided not to run for another term. State Rep. Ross Spano won a heated GOP primary, while Kristen Carlson, a former general counsel to the Florida Department of Citrus, won the Democratic primary. This seat is a stretch for Democrats, but it's not inconceivable that they could win it.

7 (tie). District 25: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) (Previous ranking: 8)
Diaz-Balart's eight terms and prominent family name makes him an institution in this heavily Cuban district, which is based in Miami but also stretches to Republican-leaning precincts around Naples and Fort Myers. So he remains favored even though the district backed Trump by only a point. However, the Democratic nominee turned out to be stronger than initially expected, leading us to upgrade the district to "potentially vulnerable." Democrat Mary Barzee Flores is a former judge who is tapped into the Democratic Party power base and should have a broad pool for fundraising. This seat is still a longshot for the Democrats, but with a big enough wave, it's not impossible that it could change hands.


9 (tie). District 3 (Ted Yoho, R), District 8 (Bill Posey, R), District 12 (Gus Bilirakis, R)
These incumbents represent districts that Trump won by double digits. Yoho faces Yvonne Hayes Hinson, a former Gainesville city commissioner; Posey faces Sanjay Patel, a management consultant and Democratic state committee member; and Bilirakis faces Chris Hunter, a former federal prosecutor and former FBI agent. Each of the Republicans should be safe, barring a massive wave.

Clarification: Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the Democrat challenging Carlos Curbelo, is Hispanic. An earlier version of this story was unclear.