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  1. Florida Politics

History shows Democrats unlikely to make hay from state GOP budget troubles

Lenny Curry was able to tap into friendships he earned while leading the state GOP as well as party resources to win the Jacksonville election. [Associated Press]
Lenny Curry was able to tap into friendships he earned while leading the state GOP as well as party resources to win the Jacksonville election. [Associated Press]
Published May 23, 2015

News that the feds may send up to $1 billion to fund a hospital payment program means it should be easier for Republican legislative leaders to plug their budget holes without another meltdown. But even if June's special session goes smoothly, big intra-party differences over funding heath care stand to loom again over the 2016 session, and Democrats will do their part to remind voters how Republican lawmakers failed to enact a budget on time.

The message that Republicans can't govern combined with a presidential election that should improve Democratic turnout, makes Democratic leaders hopeful they can gain ground in the Florida House.

History is not on their side, however.

The last time the Republican lawmakers were too dysfunctional to pass a budget on time was 2003, when Republican Senate President Jim King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd could not stand one another. So what happened when election day rolled around? Republicans gained three more seats in the Florida House in another presidential election year.

"Just because you've been handed an opportunity, doesn't mean you can't blow an opportunity," said Steve Schale, a lobbyist and veteran Democratic strategist who knows first-hand how difficult it can be recruiting strong legislative candidates.

He ran state House campaigns for the Democrats in 2006 when they gained nine seats and says the single most important factor was strong candidate recruitment.

Today, Democrats hold only 39 of 120 Florida House seats, and there would seem to be prime targets of opportunity for them: nine Republican House members whose districts Barack Obama won in both 2008 and 2012. In Tampa Bay, those seemingly vulnerable Republican House members include Ross Spano of Dover; Chris Latvala of Clearwater; Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena; and Shawn Harrison of Tampa.

But unseating an incumbent can look much easier on paper than in practice, and not just because Florida Republicans have vastly more money to spend.

"Democrats will either end up with 40 or 41 seats in the most likely scenario," predicted St. Petersburg-based Democratic strategist Barry Edwards, who is working with Shawn Harrison challenger Mike Reedy.

Looking just at the Pinellas races, for instance, Rep. Peters won her last campaign against a credible Democrat by 17 percentage points. And Rep. Latvala has a pretty potent last name that he shares with influential state Sen. Jack Latvala, who has a lot of friends in Democratic circles.

"If the Democrats recruit somebody against Chris Latvala, where are the trial lawyers, the teachers union and the labor unions going to go? They're going to go to Chris because of his father," Edwards said.

GOP wins back Jacksonville

Former state Republican Party chairman Lenny Curry unseated Jacksonville's Democratic Mayor Alvin Brown last week in a race that had everybody from Bill Clinton to Jeb Bush weighing in. So what do the results say about Florida's political landscape in 2016?

Not a great deal. In no way would we diminish what it takes for a virtually unknown local figure like Curry to unseat an incumbent mayor. It's a huge win for Curry and his political team, who ran an excellent race and showed that the Florida GOP hasn't forgotten how to execute a strong ground game.

But if I'm Hillary Rodham Clinton and looking at how seriously I should fight for Florida, Charlie Crist's last race — he won just 43 percent in Duval County — would give me much more pause than this race, in which Brown won nearly 49 percent

Brown was something of a fluke as a Democratic mayor, having won four years ago in large part because he ran against a weak tea party candidate with little support from Jacksonville's business community. He lost by 2.6 percentage points — slightly worse than Barack Obama in 2008 and slightly better than Obama in 2012 — against a better-funded, Chamber-backed Republican. Given the resources and focus the GOP put into the race, Democrats have little to apologize for.

"I think it was a return to normalcy. Most of (the) wins show strength of moderate business-minded candidates," emailed Abel Harding, a banker and savvy Jacksonville politico who used to work for Brown.

Straw poll results

Results are in from the Florida Family Policy Council's Republican primary straw poll last night. The significance of the social conservative group's unscientific and nonbinding survey of 90 activists we'll leave up to you to decide: Marco Rubio, 33.7 percent; Ted Cruz, 30.3 percent; Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, 8.9 percent; Rick Santorum, 6.7 percent; Rand Paul, 4.5 percent; Ben Carson, 3.4 percent.