Two Democratic congressional incumbents from South Florida would be pitted against one another and tens of thousands of people in the Homestead area would be shifted into a new district under a first draft of a redistricting map released by the Florida Legislature just days before they begin a court-mandated special session Monday to deal with the topic.
Hundreds of thousands of Tampa Bay residents would have a new member of Congress in 2016, and former Gov. Charlie Crist could be well on his way to winning a seat in the U.S. House.
But by almost any account, the map proposed Wednesday has a long way to go to become law. Legislators will spend the next two weeks adjusting and amending the proposal, which ultimately would still need to go back to the courts for a final approval before it could go into effect.
In the big picture, even with all the shifting, Republicans would still be favored to hold the majority of congressional seats in Florida. Republicans represent 17 of the state’s 27 congressional districts now, despite the state’s having more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Democrats might lose one seat in North Florida because of the new lines but are optimistic that they will ultimately gain two seats in return: one in Pinellas County and the other near Orlando.
Two Democrats could have to fight it out for one district in South Florida. The proposed map puts Reps. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, and Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, in the same district. But consultant Matthew Isbell, who analyzes redistricting data mostly for Democrats, said he thinks Deutch could move a little south and have a district conducive to winning another term in Congress.
Members of Congress do not have to live in the district they run in, but politically not living in the district can be a hindrance as it was for Democrat Alex Sink, a longtime Hillsborough County resident, when she tried to run against David Jolly last year in the Pinellas-based district.
Many members of Congress are taking a wait-and-see approach to the new boundaries and say they are staying out of the debate.
“This is the first step in a process for redrawing congressional districts in Florida,” said Vern Buchanan, a Republican who would lose nearly 160,000 south Sarasota County residents in return for picking up nearly that many residents in southern Hillsborough County.
The new map is the latest twist in a four-year struggle by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature to redraw the state’s 27 congressional districts, as is required after every federal Census. In 2012, the Legislature first passed a set of new maps. However, those maps were challenged in court by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, which said they did not adhere to a state constitutional amendment that requires lines to be drawn without intent to protect incumbents or to benefit one party.
The courts agreed, forcing the Legislature to redraw many of the problem districts in 2014. But those new lines were challenged again, and the Florida Supreme Court ruled last month that the Legislature again failed to comply with the Fair District section of the constitution. In a scathing 5-2 decision the court said Republican operatives had conducted a “shadow redistricting process” and infiltrated the map-drawing when lawmakers first drew the congressional boundaries in 2012. The court then gave legislators until Oct. 17 to revise eight of the state’s 27 districts.
The map proposed Wednesday follows the Florida Supreme Court’s advice by giving Democratic U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville a new east-west district that would stretch from Jacksonville to Tallahassee and beyond. As a result, another Democrat, first-term U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, would face a steep climb to win reelection in a Panhandle district that’s much more Republican.
Meanwhile, Crist, who on Monday said he is considering a comeback bid for Congress after unsuccessful bids for governor in 2014 and U.S. Senate in 2010, emerged as a big winner in the proposed new map. Crist said this week he’d watch the redistricting process closely to see if his home would end up in a Pinellas-based district.
Crist would be a heavy favorite in a reconfigured 13th District, held by Jolly, a Republican who is running for U.S. Senate. The redrawn 13th would include all of the predominantly African-American areas of south St. Petersburg, and Crist got 54 percent of the district vote against Republican Gov. Rick Scott last November.
While Crist would be a big winner under the new map, the opposite is true for Rep. Dan Webster, a Republican representing the 10th District in suburban Orlando.. His district would become more racially diverse. It would inherit many Orlando-area black voters who are now represented by Brown, and would turn into a district where President Barack Obama received 60 percent of the vote in 2012.
“[Webster] is a big loser in this round of redistricting,” said consultant Isbell.
In deep South Miami-Dade, Homestead falls into the district of Carlos Curbelo in the proposed map. Much of Homestead had been in Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s 27th District. Both are Republicans.
The new 5th District, represented by Brown since 1992, would chop heavily Democratic Leon County in Tallahassee in half, which Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, will try to change.
“I’m opposed to splitting Leon County up into two different congressional districts,” said Montford, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Reapportionment Committee.
Montford said the base map is a starting point for the Legislature’s work over the next two weeks.
“We’ll fine tune it and put the finishing touches on it,” Montford said.
Contact Jeremy Wallace at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jeremyswallace.