Democrats compete in more Florida legislative races, but still face long odds

Democrats are all over the Florida ballot. They probably still won’t win majorities in either the House or the Senate.
OT_351116_KEEL_FLGOV_SCOTT KEELER (03/06/2012 TALLAHASSEE)   8. The State of Florida Capitol complex in Tallahassee.  (FOR SUNDAY STORY). FOR FILE.     TIMES PHOTO SCOTT KEELER
OT_351116_KEEL_FLGOV_SCOTT KEELER (03/06/2012 TALLAHASSEE) 8. The State of Florida Capitol complex in Tallahassee. (FOR SUNDAY STORY). FOR FILE. TIMES PHOTO SCOTT KEELER [ Times (2012) ]
Published June 12, 2020|Updated June 12, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — The elections to decide who makes Florida’s laws were barely elections at all just six years ago.

Only 43 percent of state house races in 2014 had a Democrat square off against a Republican. That November, Republicans wiped the floor with Democrats to gain an 82-37 super-majority in the Florida House while maintaining a 26-14 edge in the Senate.

In what could be a hopeful sign for Democrats this year, 80 percent of races featured a candidate from both major parties after Friday’s noon qualifying deadline for statewide candidates.

As of 3 p.m. Friday, Florida’s elections website had showed that Democrats fielded a qualified candidate in 139 of the 141 races voters will decide this year. Republicans were represented in 113 of the 141 races.

Members of the 120-member Florida House are up for reelection every two years, along with 20 members of the 40-person Florida Senate. There will also be an election to replace the retiring Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who announced last month he’ll resign in November.

In order to qualify, candidates from the major parties have to collect a few hundred signatures — the numbers vary by district — and pay a $1,781.82 fee.

The elections are high stakes every two years. The partisan makeup of the House and Senate has vast implications for everyday Floridians: everything from school funding to gun legislation to abortion policy is decided by the Legislature. The state’s primary for these races is Aug. 18. The general election is Nov. 3.

For more than two decades, Republicans have had a stranglehold on the lawmaking process in Tallahassee with little electoral resistance offered by Democrats.

There are some possible signs that could be changing. In 2018, Democrats fielded a candidate in all 22 state senate seats, reducing the Republican majority by a seat. The party also put up a fight in 108 of the 120 House races, stealing a net of six seats away from the GOP.

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

Currently, Republicans outnumber Democrats 23-17 in the Senate and 73-46 in the House.

Still, odds are strong that Republicans will maintain substantial majorities in both chambers. As of Friday, campaign finance records showed Democrats looking to flip GOP-held Senate seats were getting out fundraised by a total margin of nearly six to one.

And many of the House seats Democrats are contesting are in deep red parts of the state. In 2016, Republican President Donald Trump won House District 3, where Democrat Angela Hoover is running against incumbent Republican Jayer Williamson, by 56 points.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo said it’s important to field candidates even in heavily Republican districts in part because local candidates help juice Democratic turnout up and down the ballot.

“Politics is driven from the bottom up,” Rizzo said. However, she acknowledged candidate recruitment has become easier under President Donald Trump.

Hillsborough County is likely to provide most of the intrigue in the Tampa Bay area legislative races. Lee’s open seat slightly shortens the long odds facing Democrats hoping to flip the Senate. Republicans aren’t taking any chances in a district where there’s almost an equal number of GOP and Democratic voters. Gov. Ron DeSantis endorsed Danny Burgess, Florida’s former executive director of veterans affairs, on Friday. Democrat Kathy Lewis has already filed. Qualifying begins for that special election next week.

House District 59, which Democrat Adam Hattersley managed to narrowly flip in 2018, is sure to be closely contested again this year. So far, Democrat Andrew Learned has raised about $99,000. His potential Republican opponents, Danny Kushmer and Michael Owen, have raised $64,825 and $158,113.14, respectively in the race for the east Hillsborough district.

House District 60, held by Republican Jackie Toledo, encompasses most of South Tampa and parts of southern Hillsborough County. Toledo held onto the seat in 2018 by about five percentage points. She’s currently out-fundraising Democratic challenger Julie Jenkins by a margin of more than three to one.

Three Democrats, Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa; Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa and Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg were effectively reelected Friday. The state elections website shows each candidate facing no major party opposition.

No third-party candidate has won a seat in the Florida Legislature since the 1970s.

Times staff writer Margo Snipe contributed to this report.