Republicans eye supermajority in the Florida House

Published Oct. 25, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — For Republicans in the Florida House, five is the magic number.

That's how many seats the GOP needs to flip to have a veto-proof majority in the lower chamber — and steamroll any potential opposition from Democrats.

To accomplish that goal, state Republicans are targeting seven Democratic incumbents in the Nov. 4 election: Rep. Karen Castor Dentel of Maitland, Rep. Michael Clelland of Lake Mary, Rep. Mark Danish of Tampa, Rep. Dwight Dudley of St. Petersburg, Rep. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami, Rep. Linda Stewart of Orlando, and Rep. Carl Zimmermann of Palm Harbor. All seven represent swing districts.

"If we don't get the supermajority, it will be damn close," Republican media strategist Rick Wilson said.

The incumbents aren't backing down. Castor Dentel and Rodríguez are running particularly high-profile campaigns and have raised more than $275,000 for their respective races. Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party is working to flip at least two South Florida districts in the other direction.

House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach says he feels good about his party's ability to hold the line.

"Look at what is happening with the governor's office," Pafford said. "We've been outspent by millions of dollars, but our message is capturing the attention of people around the state. That will manifest itself in a lot of our House races."

It isn't hard to imagine a GOP supermajority in the Florida House. After the 2010 election, Republicans occupied 81 of the 120 seats in the lower chamber.

The two-thirds majority allowed GOP lawmakers to pursue one of the most conservative agendas in recent memory in 2011 and 2012. The Legislature privatized Medicaid; required ultrasounds for women preparing to have an abortion; based a portion of teacher salaries on student performance; and required teachers and public employees to pay 3 percent of their salaries into their retirement accounts.

Democrats took back six seats in the 2012 election, after the legislative maps were redrawn as part of the redistricting process. But observers say they are likely to lose some ground come November.

One reason: Turnout among Democrats isn't expected to be as high as it was in 2012.

"In 2012, you had a massive, enormous Obama ground game running," said Wilson, the Republican strategist. "That ground game provided a meaningful lift for Democratic candidates across the ballot, up and down the ticket. You won't see that this year."

The seven Democratic incumbents being targeted were first elected to the House in 2012.

Their challengers have deep pockets.

For example, Chris Sprowls, a special prosecutor in the Pasco and Pinellas State Attorneys' Office, has about $267,000 in his war chest — more than double what the Democratic incumbent Zimmermann has raised.

The Republican Party also has been funneling resources into the races.

Bob Cortes, a local elected official challenging Castor Dentel in Central Florida, has received $41,000 in campaign cash from the House Republican Campaign Committee and more than $50,000 worth of polling, fundraising assistance and campaign staff from the Republican Party, records show.

The Democrats generally haven't raised as much. But they have the power of incumbency.

The three Democrats in Tampa Bay could have an additional advantage. If Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist turns out liberal voters in his home turf, Danish, Dudley and Zimmermann could see a boost at the polls.

"We feel very confident that our incumbents are running strong campaigns and continue to gain support from the voters who elected them in 2012," said Florida Democratic Party political director Christian Ulvert.

In addition to supporting the incumbents, the party is working to unseat two Republican incumbents in swing districts: Rep. Erik Fresen in Miami and Rep. Bill Hager in Delray Beach.

Neither race will be easy. Fresen has raised more than $463,000 in campaign cash — only incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli has raised more as an incumbent.

Observers say a Republican supermajority in the House would make a difference in Tallahassee, especially if Crist were elected governor.

"It would be much tougher for Crist to push forth his agenda," Broward College political scientist Kevin Walsh said.

If Republicans could lock down a supermajority in both chambers, the GOP would have the power to override a gubernatorial veto. But that would require Republicans to win one of two contested Senate races this year.

Crisafulli, the incoming House leader, declined to speculate on what might happen.

"We're focused on bringing back the majority," he said. "Whatever we get above and beyond that will be an added bonus."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at