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The Buzz's Florida congressional vulnerability rankings, October edition

Published Oct. 20, 2016

It's been six months since the Buzz last handicapped the most vulnerable congressional seats in Florida. Since then, the list of House-seat battlegrounds in the state -- and the intensity of several key races -- has only grown.

Florida was already on track for a volatile season of congressional races, thanks to newly redrawn district lines, a contested U.S. Senate race that attracted U.S. House members, and a smattering of retirements.

Recently, though, the vulnerability of several Florida Republican incumbents has continued to rise, due to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, which is expected to energize Latino voters and dampen support among moderate Republicans. In fact, earlier this month, when the Capitol Hill-based newspaper Roll Call named its list of most vulnerable House incumbents, three of the top 10 spots went to Florida Republicans.

This is the fourth consecutive election cycle that the Buzz has published periodic rankings of the most vulnerable seats in Florida's U.S. House delegation, which includes 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats.

Here are the seats we're keeping an eye on, in descending order by how vulnerable the incumbent party is to losing the seat on Election Day.

PARTY SWITCH EXPECTED

When the Florida Supreme Court enforced a mid-decade redrawing of congressional lines, three congressional districts were changed so radically in demographic and partisan composition that a party switch this fall is all but assured. Two of these are poised to switch parties:

1. (tie) 2nd District (being vacated by Rep. Gwen Graham, D)

1. (tie) 10th District (being vacated by Rep. Dan Webster, R)

The expected outcome in both of these districts hasn't changed much since our last analysis. Both incumbents saw the writing on the wall and chose not to run in their modified districts.

In Graham's old district, now largely stripped of more liberal Tallahassee, physician Neal Dunn is on a glide path to a seat in Congress after defeating attorney and former state official Mary Thomas and former federal prosecutor Ken Sukhia in the Aug. 30 GOP primary,

Meanwhile, in Webster's old district -- now a Democratic-leaning seat in the Orlando area -- former Orlando police chief Val Demings won a competitive Democratic primary against state Sen. Geraldine Thompson and former state party chair Bob Poe. Demings, an African-American and Orlando's first female police chief, is well on her way to Congress, where she has close ties to the Democratic leadership and is poised to become a national figure.

VULNERABLE TO PARTY SWITCH

3. 13th District (Rep. David Jolly, R)

After redistricting made his Pinellas County-based district significantly more Democratic, Jolly initially jumped into the crowded Republican field to succeed GOP U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. (Rubio, after failing in his presidential bid, eventually returned to the Senate race.) Then, after failing to gain traction in the Senate campaign, Jolly decided in June to return and defend his House seat.

Because Jolly is an incumbent, we've downgraded this race from "party switch expected" to "vulnerable to party switch." Still, that doesn't mean that winning re-election will be easy for Jolly: He faces a hometown political giant, former Gov. Charlie Crist, running as a Democrat. Complicating matters for Jolly is that he took part in an April 60 Minutes piece critical of congressional fundraising, including hidden camera footage of the House GOP's campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee. The NRCC retaliated against Jolly by effectively freezing funding for his race. An early October University of North Florida poll found Crist ahead, 54 percent to 36 percent, and Republicans acknowledge that Jolly would need a miracle at this point to win.

4. 18th District (being vacated by Rep. Patrick Murphy, D)

Murphy is running for the Senate against Rubio, leaving his competitive Palm Beach-Treasure Coast House district up for grabs. Randy Perkins, the founder and CEO of Ashbritt, a disaster-recovery firm, defeated attorney Jonathan Chane in the primary, while on the Republican side, disabled Afghanistan War veteran Brian Mast prevailed against a large GOP field. The campaign has had its belligerent moments. Republicans have tried to label the Democratic nominee as opportunistic and even "unhinged" while touting Mast's personal story of military service and physical recovery. Democrats, for their part, paint Perkins as a moderate businessman and argue that Mast is too conservative for the district. Perkins' best shot at holding the seat for his party would be a rising Democratic tide.

5. 26th District (Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R)

Curbelo represents a heavily Hispanic Miami-area district that has ping-ponged back and forth between the two parties -- Republican from 2010 to 2012, Democratic from 2012 to 2014, and now Republican again. In 2014, Curbelo narrowly defeated scandal-weakened Democrat Joe Garcia, and the district's modest Democratic lean was strengthened under the new lines. Now Curbelo and Garcia are facing off again, after Garcia narrowly defeated the Democrats' preferred candidate, businesswoman Annette Taddeo, in the primary. Garcia's best hope for victory in November is for Trump to energize Latinos and alienate them from the GOP; Garcia will likely need to outpace Trump by double digits to win the district. Foreseeing this reality, Curbelo has aggressively distanced himself from Trump, taken some moderate stances and portrayed himself as a problem-solver in Congress. The GOP is also hammering Garcia for his past connection to a fake absentee ballot effort as well as "sexist comments about Hillary Clinton" that were caught on camera. At this point, it looks like either candidate could win.

6. 7th District (Rep. John Mica, R)

Redistricting made Mica's Orlando-Winter Park-Seminole County district younger, more ethnically diverse and more Democratic. Initially, though, the Democrats had trouble attracting a candidate to challenge Mica, whose seniority makes him an influential voice on transportation policy. Then, shortly before the May 6 filing deadline, Stephanie Murphy filed to run. She's a former Defense Department official and venture capitalist who emigrated to the United States as a child from war-torn Vietnam. Meanwhile, observers agree that Mica, who's been in Congress since 1992 and has rarely faced significant opposition, has been caught flat-footed. National Democrats have jumped into the race and see a real chance of ousting Mica, especially if Trump's campaign can energize the district's growing Puerto Rican electorate. We're moving this seat from "potentially vulnerable to party switch" to "vulnerable to party switch."

POTENTIALLY VULNERABLE TO PARTY SWITCH

7. 27th District (Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R)

Ros-Lehtinen is new to our list, primarily because her district is 76 percent Latino in a year when Trump is heading the GOP ballot. To be sure, she's a well-established and well-liked incumbent, and she's taken politically moderate stances that are in tune with her district, notably on social issues. She's also aggressively distanced herself from Trump. But will the Democrats have a big enough wave this year to topple her? It can no longer be ruled out. Ros-Lehtinen's Democratic challenger is Scott Fuhrman, who runs a juice company and is partially self-funding his campaign. A poll released by Fuhrman's own campaign showed him down by nine points, so he'll have to make up ground quickly if he's going to win.

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