After the primary, Florida Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell moves up in vulnerability rankings

This is the sixth consecutive cycle the Buzz has published assessments that rank Florida’s U.S. House districts in descending order, starting with the most vulnerable.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., speaks during a House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 12, 2019, in Washington.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., speaks during a House Judiciary Committee on Dec. 12, 2019, in Washington. [ ALEX BRANDON | AP ]
Published Sept. 8, 2020

With Florida’s primaries in the rear-view mirror, the Buzz congressional vulnerability rankings have a new leader: Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who moves up a notch on our list after Republican Ross Spano lost his bid for renomination. Spano’s loss, which follows a long-running campaign-finance investigation, gives Republicans a fresh start in their effort to hold his Tampa Bay area seat.

This is the sixth consecutive cycle the Buzz has published assessments that rank Florida’s U.S. House districts in descending order, starting with the most vulnerable. We define “vulnerable” as the likelihood that the opposing party will seize control of the seat in 2020. Below is our first ranking since July 24 of the most vulnerable congressional seats in the state.

The seats in the delegation not listed below are not considered vulnerable at this time. One of the seats that didn’t make our list is one that’s attracting a lot of national media attention – the Palm Beach-area one held by Democrat Lois Frankel, who’s being challenged by Laura Loomer, a controversial figure on the right. Barring something unexpected, the district is simply too Democratic to back a nominee as conservative as Loomer.

Highly vulnerable

No races in this category


1st – District 26: Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D) Previous: 2

Joe Biden may have a modest lead in Florida’s presidential contest, but the most vulnerable House member is now a Democrat. In 2018, Mucarsel-Powell defeated incumbent Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo by 2 points in this heavily Cuban district in Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys. The district backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 by 16 points. Mucarsel-Powell has kept up her fundraising juggernaut: She’s raised more than triple the amount raised by her Republican opponent, term-limited Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, and Mucarsel-Powell has $2.8 million in cash on hand, compared to just $833,000 for Gimenez. Gimenez’s moderate profile and high name identification make him a strong GOP recruit. And while Miami-Dade has been an epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Florida, the pandemic doesn’t seem to have torpedoed Gimenez’s prospects. If anything, it’s given him added exposure in a leadership role. Still, Gimenez’s primary victory was underwhelming; he scored a 60 percent to 40 percent win against little-known and underfunded firefighter Omar Blanco. Miami-Dade will be fiercely contested by both parties on the presidential level; if Trump or Biden gets the upper hand in turnout, it could shape who wins this race.

2nd – District 15: Open seat (Rep. Ross Spano, R, was defeated in primary) Previous: 1

This race has dropped one slot in vulnerability following Spano’s primary loss to Lakeland City Commissioner and retired combat naval aviator Scott Franklin. Spano had won an open seat in 2018 in a district that went for Trump two years earlier by 10 points. But it later emerged that Spano had improperly accepted $180,000 in campaign donations from two friends, which led to an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. Franklin narrowly defeated Spano in the primary, 51 percent to 49 percent, enabling Republicans to run a nominee this fall who is free of an ethical cloud. The primary also produced a somewhat unexpected result for Democrats, as former Sarasota TV journalist Alan Cohn, an unsuccessful candidate for the seat in 2014, won the nomination with 41 percent of the vote, ahead of state Rep. and Navy combat veteran Adam Hattersley, who had been something of an establishment favorite. The combination of both parties’ primary results jumbles the contest, but all sides are acting as if the race remains competitive for the fall. and both candidates will have to rebuild their war chests after their expensive primaries.

3rd – District 27: Rep. Donna Shalala (D) Previous: 3

This contest has attracted considerably less attention recently than the race in the nearby district that involves Mucarsel-Powell. Shalala flipped this majority-Hispanic district in Miami and Miami Beach when the Republican incumbent, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, retired in 2018, although Shalala’s margin of victory (6 points) over Spanish-language TV veteran Republican Maria Elvira Salazar was smaller than Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 (19 points). Salazar is back for another run and easily won the GOP primary. (Frank Polo Sr. will also be on the ballot as an independent write-in candidate.) Shalala has $1.8 million in cash on hand, compared to $1.2 million for Salazar, and after a burst of negative publicity in April – when Shalala had to apologize for not reporting stock trades as required – the incumbent has had a quieter couple of months. As with Gimenez in the nearby district, Salazar will need to hope for a lot of ticket-splitters in November – voters who choose Biden for president but Salazar for Congress.

4th – District 18: Rep. Brian Mast (R) Previous: 7

This contest has jumped up our list a bit, and could climb higher still, depending on how recent revelations play out. Mast, an Army bomb-disposal expert in Afghanistan who lost both legs below his knees, was re-elected in 2018 by 8 points in his Palm Beach-Treasure Coast district. But in late August, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that Mast “joked about rape and referenced sex with 15-year-old girls in old Facebook comments to a friend who is now his campaign manager.” This led to condemnations not just by Democrats but also such fellow Republicans as Roger Stone and Roy Moore. (Mast apologized to the Sun-Sentinel, saying, “A decade ago when I was in the Army, and following my injury, I made disgusting and inappropriate jokes that I am embarrassed to have associated with my name today. I am sorry about that part of who I was, and I strive every day to be a better example for my kids.”) Democrats, for their part, had a mildly surprising result in their primary, as Pam Keith, a former Navy JAG officer who lost a 2018 Democratic primary for the seat, defeated Oz Vazquez, who was better funded and had been endorsed by the Florida chapter of the AFL-CIO and by the former holder of the seat, Democrat Patrick Murphy. Keith, who has a sizable social media following, defeated Vazquez by 4-to-1 margin. However, Mast has a large lead in cash on hand, $1.8 million to $101,000, giving him the edge, as long as the social media controversy blows over.

5th – District 16: Rep. Vern Buchanan (R) Previous: 4

Buchanan, a seven-term incumbent from a Sarasota-based district that backed Trump by 10 points in 2016, has been targeted again and again by Democrats, but thanks in part to his deep pockets, he’s been a survivor. He’s favored again in 2020; an internal poll taken in late August had him up by 16 points. However, if Biden does as well among senior citizens and suburbanites as recent polls suggest he could, Buchanan will be facing some headwinds. Buchanan’s opponent is Democrat Margaret Good, who won a 2018 special election for a state House seat that overlaps with the district, defeating Buchanan’s son James. Good has $1.04 million on hand – not shabby, but less than Buchanan’s $1.7 million. Good has been pushing a message of moderation and bipartisanship, which seems like the only credible strategy for this district.

Potentially vulnerable

6th – District 13: Rep. Charlie Crist (D) Previous: 5

Crist, a Democrat who previously served as governor as a Republican and an independent, keeps chugging along in this St. Petersburg-Clearwater seat. The only notable recent development came in the multi-candidate GOP primary, and it probably helped Crist, who had already been a sizable favorite for re-election. Anna Paulina Luna, an Air Force and Air National Guard veteran who offered an aggressively pro-Trump approach, won the nomination, defeating a large field that included Amanda Makki, a former congressional aide whose family emigrated from Iran and who had the support of senior Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. A St. Pete Polls survey released after the primary had Crist leading Luna by 16 points, similar to his margin in 2018. Crist also far outpaces Luna in cash on hand, $3.1 million to $319,000.

7th – District 7: Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D) Previous: 6

Murphy, a Vietnamese-American former refugee, has cemented her place as a rising figure in national Democratic circles. Her Orlando-area district voted for Clinton by 7 points and is home to a substantial Democratic-leaning, Puerto Rican population; she won in 2018 by an impressive 16-point margin. Radiologist Leo Valentin, who had received the endorsement of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, narrowly won the three-way GOP primary over businessman Richard Goble, with real estate investor Yukong Zhao finishing third. But Murphy has shown little sign of vulnerability; she has more than $1.4 million on hand, compared to $185,000 for Valentin. Perhaps equally important for Murphy is that she won an endorsement for the second straight cycle from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which in recent years has mostly endorsed Republicans. This should further burnish Murphy’s moderate credentials.