While most of the nation will be preoccupied in 2020 with the presidential race, national and state Democrats are mounting what they call an unprecedented effort further down the ballot, to recapture state legislative seats that form the foundation of the political system.
One of their battlegrounds will be Hillsborough County, where two or possibly three Tampa-area state House races will draw attention and heavy outside spending.
The big prize Dems have their eyes on is redistricting after the 2020 Census, when the Legislature will draw congressional and legislative district maps that will shape the course of Florida politics for the coming decade.
For two decades, large legislative majorities have enabled Republicans to draw district lines favorable to their candidates, despite lawsuits.
That meant Republicans controlled the close-to-home policy issues governed by the state — education, criminal justice, transportation and many environmental and health care issues.
Democrats have no realistic chance of winning either House or Senate majorities. They now hold 17 of 40 Senate seats and 47 of 120 House seats; adding two Senate seats and five House seats would be a major victory.
But narrowing the gap would increase their influence in redistricting, deepen their bench for up-ballot races and boost their fundraising.
Their hopes for Hillsborough are in the House:
- In District 59 in east Hillsborough, Democrats will battle to hold the Brandon-based seat narrowly flipped in 2018 by Adam Hattersley after decades of Republican control. Hattersley will leave the seat to run for Congress.
- In South Tampa-based District 60, Democrat Julie Jenkins has filed to challenge Republican Rep. Jackie Toledo.
- In District 64 in northern Hillsborough and Pinellas, Democrat Jessica Harrington is running for the second time against Republican Rep. Jamie Grant.
“We have been 20 years behind the Republicans when it comes to understanding the true importance of redistricting and what that means,” said state Rep. Evan Jenne, co-Democratic leader in the state House.
In the 2010 election, Republicans swept legislative elections nationwide, and now control 59 of the nation’s 98 partisan legislative houses.
But Republicans already had control of Florida’s Legislature. In redistricting after the 2000 Census, Democrats were reduced to insignificant minorities by heavily gerrymandered district maps. The Fair Districts Amendment and demographic change have helped them regain some ground.
Jenne wouldn’t say how many House seats he hopes to gain in 2020, but he noted the possible effect on national politics — “When we go through redistricting, we’ll be setting the stage for the nation’s third largest congressional delegation.”
Florida currently has 27 Congress members — 13 Democrats and 14 Republicans — and could go up to 29 following the Census. The Legislature will draw those districts, each party fighting to give its incumbents and candidates favorable voters.
This year, the superPAC Forward Majority says it will spend at least $10 million on independent expenditures to benefit Democratic legislative candidates in four states including Florida — TV, mailers and digital ads attacking GOP incumbents.
Tampa’s Districts 60 and 64 are on the list of 18 Florida races where it may spend, said spokesman Ben Wexler-Waite.
In District 60, Democrat Debra Bellanti lost to Toledo in 2018 by less than five points after being outspent nearly 5-1, and Democrats Bill Nelson for U.S. Senate and Andrew Gillum for governor both lost by less than 1 point.
But Toledo has an established name and recent favorable publicity over vaping and texting-while-driving bills, plus a long fundraising head start — $196,708 campaign money raised and about $89,000 in an independent campaign committee through November.
District 64 is less Democrat-friendly; Nelson and Gillum both lost by about 6 points there. But Harrington notes she lost by seven points in 2018 despite a late campaign start and being outspent 50-1.
Last year, Wexler-Waite said, his group spent $2 million in 20 Florida districts including 60 and 64, out of $9 million nationwide.
The group will blast GOP incumbents including Toledo and Grant over their corporate contributions and their 2019 votes for a bill that would allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums for people with pre-existing health conditions, if the Affordable Care Act is repealed.
Meanwhile, a state-level organization headed by Gillum expects to target House districts where he won but where a Republican won the House seat, possibly including District 59.
Gillum’s group has already given $150,000 to the Democratic Party’s state House campaign arm and will give contributions to individual candidates as well.