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Open congressional seats have Florida Democrats in risky scramble

The death of U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a looming redistricting fight and the state’s resign-to-run law make for an interesting political shuffle for Democrats.
A platoon of candidates have already launched campaign efforts to replace Alcee Hastings, who died April 6.
A platoon of candidates have already launched campaign efforts to replace Alcee Hastings, who died April 6. [ ALLEN EYESTONE, THE PALM BEACH POST | Palm Beach Post ]
Published Jun. 4

WASHINGTON — Democrats around Florida are reaching for the next rung on the political ladder as the 2022 election cycle begins, and the jockeying for higher office could play a role in a looming redistricting fight.

In South Florida, former U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings’ death in April prompted at least five sitting politicians to run for a deep blue seat that hasn’t been open since its creation in 1992. In Central Florida, U.S. Rep. Val Demings’ likely decision to challenge Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has led to at least one, and potentially more state legislators entering a primary in another Democratic-leaning seat. In St. Petersburg, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s decision to run for governor prompted another group of local Democratic lawmakers to seek a step up the ladder. And Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s gubernatorial announcement means Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat isn’t staying put in 2022.

Related: Charlie Crist declares another run for Florida governor
Related: Nikki Fried announces bid for Florida governor, showdown with DeSantis

Some of the scrambling is natural after a 2020 election cycle in which Democrats lost almost every competitive race across the state. Other factors, notably Hastings’ death, upended plans for state senators, state representatives and county-level officials interested in a higher-profile job.

And the state’s resign-to-run law, which expanded in 2018 to include candidates for federal office, means some incumbent Democrats are taking a political risk to pursue a bigger job. Certain candidates who push forward won’t make it out of crowded Democratic primaries, while others will face uphill challenges against Republican incumbents.

“It’s never a problem when you’re getting new blood in seats,” former Broward Democratic state senator and lobbyist Chris Smith said. “It’s a problem when you’re losing experienced people in droves. In Broward, you’ve got four capable, accomplished elected officials and come November three of them are going to be out of elected office.”

At the U.S. House level, the uncertainty is even higher for Democrats as Republicans will have more power to decide how district lines are drawn. A new seat after congressional reappointment is likely to be drawn in Central Florida, and Democrats and Republicans alike expect the new seat to swing red. There could be a small window of time between the final district lines and the June 2022 qualifying deadline that will require incumbents to give up their seats to run for higher offices.

“There’s a confluence of events that occurred already layered into a redistricting year,” said South Florida Democratic strategist Christian Ulvert. “Obviously, the passing of Congressman Hastings ... set in motion a series of dominoes in Broward County, but then you match that with every statewide seat on the ballot in 2022. The major markets are the ones seeing the greatest movement. In some ways you’re seeing democracy at its finest, but it’s being felt more truly on our side with the amount of openings we have to challenge Republicans.”

There’s no majority among voters

Underlying a partisan fight over redistricting is the fact that neither party has a majority position among registered voters. In the latest Department of State figures as of April 30, registered Democrats have a slim lead over Republicans, 89,705, in an overall electorate of 14.5 million. There are about 5.2 million registered Republicans, about 5.3 million registered Democrats and about 4 million voters who are registered with minor parties (just 248,276) or no party (nearly 3.9 million).

The Hastings seat, which will be filled in a January special election announced by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, offers an additional set of intrigue. DeSantis hasn’t announced plans for special elections to fill terms for sitting politicians who run for Congress, meaning their seats could go unfilled in early 2022 when the Legislature reconvenes to draw district lines after the 2020 Census.

“If there [were] two people running for the Hastings seat, that’s natural, but it’s kind of unnatural to get all these people running at one time and opening up all the other seats,” Smith said. “That’s what makes this a story and makes it unique. [Up to] five people sitting in office right now come November are not going to be sitting in office anymore.”

And the potential departures of state senator Perry Thurston along with state representatives Bobby DuBose and Omari Hardy, should they all qualify to run, would leave three more vacancies in Tallahassee during a redistricting process in which Republicans already have an advantage. There’s also chatter that another state senator, Bobby Powell from Palm Beach County, could enter the race.

“The domino effects of the Alcee seat are much more substantial from a political impact. The special election is timed so anyone who runs for it won’t have their seat filled,” said Evan Ross, a South Florida-based Democratic consultant and lobbyist. “There’s a substantial risk factor here because Democrats are close to becoming a super-minority only because of vacancies and that was very clearly done deliberately by DeSantis.”

Down ballot effects

While statewide races and congressional seats offer a step up the ladder along with more media attention and campaign cash, the voids created by state Sen. Randolph Bracy running for Demings’ U.S. House seat, state Rep. and future House Democratic leader Ben Diamond announcing a run for Crist’s seat, along with the 10-way primary for Hastings’ seat, create openings further down the ballot for Democrats to recruit new candidates.

And more state legislators could jump into existing open seats or announce bids for the statewide cabinet positions of attorney general, agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer. At least one Miami-Dade state senator, Democrat Annette Taddeo, is considering a gubernatorial run of her own. Tampa-area state Rep. Michele Rayner teased a “special announcement” on June 14 as she eyes a potential run for Crist’s seat.

Races against Miami Republican Reps. Carlos Gimenez and Maria Elvira Salazar could attract additional Democrats currently holding office once district lines are finalized next year.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando-area progressive who worked as a Planned Parenthood organizer before entering politics, said recruiting new candidates is tougher because the Florida Democratic Party lacks the infrastructure of the Florida Republican Party to identify and promote future candidates.

“It’s a challenge because every Democratic institution in Florida has new leadership,” Eskamani said. “There’s so many new people getting their feet wet and that takes time.”

Eskamani said Democrats like her in different parts of the state have spent the past few months recruiting and speaking with potential candidates who don’t come from traditional backgrounds of holding local elected office before jumping into legislative races.

“A lot of this comes from the grassroots stuff, who are your small business leaders or activists you admire,” Eskamani said when asked about recruitment efforts for down-ballot seats. “I think it’s also looking for some of those candidates who you don’t always think are the viable types.”

Ross said the voids created by Democrats trying to move up aren’t a bad thing for down-ballot Democrats in most cases. Even a high-profile loss could help fuel someone’s future ambitions, Ross said, noting how Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff lost a high-profile U.S. House race in 2017 before winning statewide in 2020.

“This cycle is going to allow Democrats to emerge from the bench to the spotlight,” Ross said. “I think you’ll see some stars emerging, win or lose, whereas for Republicans the only race where they don’t have a candidate is agriculture commissioner.”

Resign to run

The one factor that could ultimately limit the number of Democrats seeking higher office is the state’s resign-to-run law, which was expanded in 2018 to cover local and state officeholders who want to run for federal office. If their terms overlap, sitting officials must submit resignations at least 10 days before qualifying to run.

For the Hastings special election, which will be held Jan. 11, 2022, after the Democratic primary Nov. 2, 2021, qualifying will take place in September 2021. For regularly scheduled elections, the qualifying deadline is June 17, 2022.

Smith said the resign-to-run law gives DeSantis some justification to not schedule any special elections for voids created in the Hastings race because it’s possible that one or more of the declared candidates drops out ahead of the resign-to-run deadline in September, though he said he thinks any additional special elections in Broward and Palm Beach Counties should be scheduled concurrently.

Smith said “it would help” if any sitting officeholders committed to running for Congress submit letters of resignation ahead of the deadline, but DeSantis could decide that the down ballot state Senate and state House seats are effectively “filled” until January 2022, which happens to coincide with next year’s legislative session. s

“If the governor doesn’t do the elections at the same time, you’re going into legislative session with northeast and central Broward not having a senator nor representative in the Legislature,” Smith said. “This would be the first time 250,000 people don’t have a state legislator to represent them.”