New Florida maps could change who wins Pinellas’ typically moderate congressional seat

New boundaries have shifted Pinellas County’s 13th Congressional District to the right.
Hildy Forman of Dunedin displays an "I Voted" sticker on her shirt moments after leaving The Centre of Palm Harbor, 1500 16th St., during early voting on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Palm Harbor.
Hildy Forman of Dunedin displays an "I Voted" sticker on her shirt moments after leaving The Centre of Palm Harbor, 1500 16th St., during early voting on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Palm Harbor. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 1, 2022

Pinellas County voters are divided into almost-perfect thirds among Republicans, Democrats and those with no party affiliation.

For years, that balance meant the county had the potential to swing any which way — and recent congressional candidates reflected it.

Both U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat, and his predecessor, U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican, were considered moderates in their parties.

But this year’s reconfiguration of Florida’s congressional districts split the liberal-leaning St. Petersburg into two districts, turning Pinellas County’s 13th District more reliably red and the largely Hillsborough County-based 14th District more blue.

Related: DeSantis congressional map splits St. Petersburg, reduces Tampa Bay competition

Some wonder if this move will erode Pinellas’ moderate streak.

“Pinellas voters now will lose, just as voters in every gerrymandered district currently lose,” Jolly said. “It sets all of the wrong rewards right in front of our incoming member of Congress, to put party above community simply because that’s their pathway to reelection.”

Jolly said in a more evenly split district, like the one he served in, a representative is looking to serve as many constituents as possible because that’s where the “electoral incentive” is.

But Amanda Makki, a Republican strategist running for the seat, pointed out that the number of Republicans in Pinellas has grown in the past few years, edging out Democrats, and that reflects a new appetite among voters.

Makki, who describes herself as conservative and a “pro-DeSantis” Republican, said Pinellas voters aren’t necessarily looking for someone who’s middle-of-the-road.

Rather, she said, they’re looking for someone who can deliver for the district, like former U.S. Rep. Bill Young did. Young was a Republican who was known for bringing millions in federal funding back to the Tampa Bay area. In election years, he often received a share of Democratic votes because of his commitment to the area’s veterans, public health efforts, Alzheimer’s research and beach renourishment.

Of the five Republican candidates running for the seat, only Moneer Kheireddine would likely be described as a moderate. The 26-year-old law student has left-leaning ideas like removing corporate money from elections, increasing taxes on corporations and expanding renewable energy sources.

Anna Paulina Luna, the Republican candidate who is again seeking the seat after losing to Crist in 2020, has been endorsed by Trump and the House Freedom Fund, which supports more conservative Republican and libertarian candidates. Kevin Hayslett, a private criminal defense attorney who is also seeking the seat, describes himself as a “Trump Republican.” Business owner Christine Quinn has denied that President Joe Biden won the election and went to Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the riot at the Capitol.

Hayslett said what matters to voters is consistency. He thinks voters care about knowing the candidate and them having roots in the community.

“They want to know, I think, that the person that they elect is the same person that they’ve known,” he said.

A slew of Republican and Democratic candidates jumped into the race for the District 13 seat in 2021 when Crist announced he’d run for governor. But after the once-a-decade redistricting process made plain that the district’s boundaries would make it skew more Republican, most of the Democrats dropped out.

That left Eric Lynn, a national security adviser who said he is a moderate, as the sole Democrat running for the seat. He’ll face the winner of the August Republican primary.

Pinellas County has long been seen as a bellwether area. In every year since 1980, with the exception of the 2000 presidential race, the presidential candidate chosen by Pinellas voters has won the election. Experts point to the different cultures in Pinellas as a reason why the county is considered one of the most important swing counties in a historically important swing state. In south Pinellas, St. Petersburg traditionally swings for Democrats, while the northern part of the county and the older population residing there goes for Republicans.

Related: At Republican conference, Tampa Bay candidates vie to show they're red enough

In 2020, the 13th District voted for Democratic President Joe Biden by a margin of 4 percentage points. Had the new boundaries been in place then, the district would have gone to Donald Trump over Biden by 6 percentage points.

The Republican candidates this year are banking on not only the red shift in the district to help them, but also Biden’s low approval rating and trends that indicate the party out of power does better in a midterm year.

Joshua Scacco, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida, said candidates in general have become more polarized over the years, with fewer moderates. He said Republican candidates are most likely to fall on the more conservative side of the spectrum, while Democratic candidates tend to fall on a wider ideological range — something that can make messaging more difficult for the Democratic Party.

The county’s sizable number of voters registered without a party does leave room for either the left or right to seize on — in theory. About 28% of voters in the district are registered with no party affiliation.

But Scacco said studies show that about 80% to 90% of nonpartisan voters, when questioned, tend to consistently vote in line with and identify with one party over another.

“Beyond knowing, for example, the party registration of these voters in Pinellas County, we don’t actually know what makes them tick,” he said.