9 things Florida’s election could say about its future

As voters cast their ballots, here are some important things at stake.
Sean Cousins pushes a pallet of mail-in-ballots at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections warehouse as workers transport them to begin distributing them in Tampa on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.
Sean Cousins pushes a pallet of mail-in-ballots at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections warehouse as workers transport them to begin distributing them in Tampa on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 3, 2022

To hear the candidates for governor tell it, Tuesday’s election is about a fight for Florida’s soul.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a Democrat, have each painted the other as the enemy of freedom — and both swear they have the answer when it comes to individual liberties, health care access, the economy, combatting crime, supporting Florida’s students and more.

There’s plenty on the line this Election Day, even beyond the high-profile governor’s race.

Voters will decide who represents their interests on county commissions and school boards. They’ll choose whether to retain the state’s top justices, whether to pay additional taxes to support transportation, whether to eliminate a group that can revise Florida’s Constitution and more.

Across the state, election night will show how Hurricane Ian and the arrests of people with felony records affected turnout. And Florida’s results could either reinforce or shatter Florida’s reputation as a competitive purple state.

Here are nine things to watch:

Who will be Florida’s governor?

The governor has enormous power to shape state policy. But while the two candidates hold deeply divergent visions, the most high-profile race this election cycle is looking like it will feature less down-to-the-wire drama than other contests.

DeSantis has widened his lead in recent polls and his campaign has amassed a historic cash advantage, resulting in extremely lopsided fundraising numbers.

But this is Florida, and anything can happen.

If DeSantis does pull off his expected reelection, the next question will be whether he leaves after two years to run for president in 2024. DeSantis dodged a question about a potential run during his debate with Crist. Florida law appears to require elected officials to resign before seeking a federal office, though there are varying interpretations. Some political observers have speculated that the Republican Legislature could change that.

Related: If DeSantis wins reelection, would he have to resign as governor to run for president?

If DeSantis were to resign, Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez would take his place.

How much will Florida help Republicans try to flip the U.S. House?

“We are going to fire Nancy Pelosi,” Ronna McDaniel, the national chairperson of the Republican National Committee, said at a recent event in Tampa. Republicans need five seats to take control of the U.S. House — and McDaniel said all five could come from Florida.

A combination of the midterm climate favoring Republicans plus Florida’s new congressional map will likely result in several key pickups for the GOP. The new map, drawn by DeSantis’ office earlier this year, more aggressively favors Republicans than the original proposals by the Florida Legislature.

In her speech, McDaniel ticked off five Florida seats she hopes to flip. That includes Jacksonville-area Congressional District 4, Orlando suburban Congressional District 7, and three Tampa Bay districts: the Pinellas County-based District 13, the largely Hillsborough-based 14th District and the 15th District that includes parts of Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties.

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

Political editor Emily L. Mahoney will send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options
Related: DeSantis congressional map splits St. Petersburg, reduces Tampa Bay competition

It’s far from a given that Republicans will pick up all five of their needed seats in Florida — Congressional District 14, for example, went for Biden by 19 points in 2020. But there are other potential gains McDaniel did not mention, including a North Florida seat that DeSantis’ office redrew in a way that scatters Black voters through multiple districts and now favors Republicans.

Related: Florida redistricting map: How will your new district look — and vote?

What would a potential supermajority mean for Florida’s Legislature?

Florida’s Legislature has been controlled by Republicans since 1996, but the GOP could hold two-thirds of seats in both the House and Senate after the election, in part due to redistricting. (Democrats also didn’t field candidates in more than a third of contests this year.)

A supermajority won’t have a significant impact on legislation; Republicans have long been able to pass nearly anything they want. But it will further neutralize Democrats in Tallahassee by shutting down debate on bills, since chamber rules on deliberation can be waived with a supermajority vote. Republicans have a 23-16 edge in the Senate and a 76-42 advantage in the House, and they need to pick up four seats in each chamber to have supermajorities.

To stave off disaster, Democrats are trying to win a handful of competitive races, including Democratic Sen. Janet Cruz’s Hillsborough County-based seat and the open and slightly Democratic-leaning Miami-area Senate District 38 seat.

Where do Florida Democrats go from here?

If Crist and Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings — who is running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Marco Rubio — lose their races, it would mean Democrats head into the next election cycle with little power and no standard bearer.

“I have been in conversations where national Democrats have indicated they may not compete in 2024 in Florida,” said former Pinellas U.S. Rep. David Jolly.

Jolly, a former Republican, said Democrats need a hard reset. Instead of trying to convince voters of a progressive or moderate ideology, the party should focus on building a coalition skeptical of the staunch conservatism of the modern Republican Party, he said.

That work is going to have to be done essentially from scratch. Jason Pizzo, a Democratic state senator from Miami who’s running unopposed for reelection, said the Democratic Party organizing effort has been essentially nonexistent.

“There’s nothing out there,” Pizzo said.

Do voters trust the election system after years of misinformation?

Two years after a tumultuous presidential race in which former President Donald Trump sowed doubt on America’s voting system with unfounded conspiracy theories, local elections officials are continuing to battle misinformation and distrust.

Disinformation from the 2020 election never went away, said Jesse Littlewood, vice president for campaigns for the nonpartisan voting rights advocacy group Common Cause. He said the disinformation primes voters to see any election issue as an intentional effort to suppress votes.

Littlewood pointed to recent conspiracy theories urging people not to vote early, saying some people could miss out on casting a ballot if they wait too long and encounter a day-of emergency.

Still, experts say this year’s midterms could see record turnout. That’s because of how polarized the parties have become, said Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz. He said voters may turn out because they see the other side as “unacceptable” or trying to “destroy the country.”

Will eligible felons vote four years after Amendment 4?

When nearly two-thirds of Floridians approved Amendment 4 in 2018, ending the state’s lifetime ban on voting for felons, some thought it would increase voter rolls (and help Democrats in particular).

That hasn’t materialized. In fact, it’s led to massive confusion, in part because the agency that oversees elections, the Department of State, still struggles to tell Floridians whether they’re eligible to vote under the conditions of Amendment 4 and a subsequent state law requiring felons to have paid off all financial obligations.

In August, DeSantis announced the arrests of 20 people with felony records for alleged voter fraud, even though many of those arrested told reporters they believed they could vote because elections officials issued them voter ID cards.

Some voting rights activists said they’re concerned the arrests will dissuade eligible felons, and Leon County elections supervisor Mark Earley said he’s been fielding calls from people concerned about whether they’re allowed to vote.

Will Hurricane Ian dampen turnout in affected Southwest Florida counties?

Election Day comes only six weeks after Hurricane Ian struck Southwest Florida, damaging polling places and displacing voters from their homes.

There are about one million registered voters in hard-hit Lee, Charlotte and Sarasota counties. They are firmly red areas, with about 455,000 registered Republicans and about 266,000 registered Democrats.

DeSantis issued an executive order giving those three counties flexibility in administering elections, including the ability to offer consolidated polling places. He also relaxed requirements on requesting mail ballots.

But it’s unclear if, or how, the hurricane’s aftermath could affect voting. After Hurricane Michael four years ago, affected Panhandle counties saw a 7% decrease in turnout, even as a variety of voting laws were loosened in eight counties, according to researchers with the Brennan Center for Justice.

Will local projects get support from area voters?

A tax increase to improve Hillsborough’s public transportation system is back on the ballot. It’s been a bumpy ride for that measure: Judges at various times have essentially taken it off, saying the wording was misleading, and put it back on the Hillsborough ballot, where it remains for now.

Voters approved a similar measure in 2018, only to have the referendum struck down in the courts over a question of whether the measure took power from the county in deciding how funds are spent.

The 1% sales tax increase is just one of several important local measures voters will decide. They’ll also choose whether to allow a major development in downtown Clearwater, and a substantial expansion of the Dalí museum in downtown St. Petersburg, among other policies.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Election Coverage

VOTER GUIDE: Here’s who is on your ballot and where they stand on issues.

TAX BREAKS, FATE OF COMMISSION: Here’s a look at what measures are on the November ballot.

SUPREME COURT RETENTIONS? Florida voters will decide whether to retain 5 of 7 state Supreme Court justices.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the elections in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription. Or click here to make a donation to the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund.