In the end, there was a Donald Trump effect on Florida politics and it came in the form of a wave that helped lift Republicans over the top in nearly a dozen narrow legislative races.
Democrats had hoped that the strength of a court-ordered state Senate map would help them increase their numbers in the Republican-controlled Legislature, and they were counting on a Democrat surge in the early vote to help them win as many as five seats in the Florida House.
Their net gain was much more modest: three out of 160 legislative contests — one in the state Senate and two open seats in the state House.
“Looking back, if I’d known it was going to be a Republican wave, I would have said I’d be happy if we returned with 14 members,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader from Miami Gardens. “We did better than that and picked up a seat in a Republican wave year.”
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The result is Florida’s Legislature of 2017 will look very much like the one of the last two years: cautious Republican leaders who embrace conservative policies and a Democratic caucus that can stop progress but initiate little.
“It was a very difficult year to gauge what the electorate would do, and polling wasn’t telling us all that much,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who is scheduled to become House speaker in 2020. “So, yes, it was a surprise.”
He said the message, however, was a “clear mandate from voters that they want conservative government that gets out of the way and does its functions but doesn’t continue to grow.”
But Braynon suggested that is the wrong way to interpret Tuesday’s results.
“People voted for Donald Trump because they thought he would help them have a better life,” he said. “If they make the mistake of believing this was a mandate on conservative principles, they will be surprised in the mid-terms, the same way we were in 2010. Because what people wanted, what the tea party wanted, wasn’t about smaller government, or lower taxes, or guns, abortion or gay rights. It was about accountability for my tax dollars and the government doing something for me.”
When legislators return to Tallahassee Nov. 22 for a one-day organizational session to swear in the newly elected, it will be largest gathering of new senators in recent history with 10 Democrats and 9 Republicans. In the House, there will be 46 new members, including 24 Republicans and 22 Democrats.
Republicans secured those victories in a “tough political climate,” said incoming Senate President Joe Negron. He said he identified five races he would make a priority to maintain the Senate’s 26-14 Republican majority. That included protecting two Miami-Dade incumbents, Sen. Anitere Flores, and Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.
He spent $20.5 million, more than any other state Senate effort in history, protected Flores but lost Diaz de la Portilla. Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez defeated Diaz de la Portilla, a member of Miami-Dade’s Cuban American dynasty, in the redrawn District 37. But, in an unexpected turn, the aggressive military-style campaign of Rep. Frank Artiles, a Marine Corps veteran, handily defeated incumbent Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Ridge, in District 40, which redistricting had shifted from much of Bullard’s former district into Artiles’ territory.
“We shouldn’t have been competitive in any of those seats,” Negron said.
Despite voter registrations favoring Democrats in many of those races, Negron said Republicans still proved they could win
“I think it demonstrates that a superior candidate with a more persuasive message will win regardless of the environment,” said Negron, who estimated he drove a thousand miles a week in support of GOP candidates.
Negron blamed Diaz de la Portilla’s loss on the Democratic surge in Miami-Dade County, which gave Hillary Clinton a 30-point margin over Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump helped [Republicans] in most parts of the state, but his poor showing in Miami-Dade County hurt Sen. Diaz de la Portilla,” he said.
Democrats also failed to capitalize on changes to the Senate map, which complied with the new anti-gerrymandering rules in the Florida Constitution. They lost an open seat to Rep. Keith Perry, R-Alachua, even though the Democratic candidate, former Sen. Rod Smith, had broad name recognition as a former candidate for governor and attorney general in the newly drawn District 8.
The party also lost a second open seat in Tampa,, where Rep. Dana Young, the outgoing House minority leader, defeated newcomer Democrat Bob Buesing, and two no-party candidates, Joe Redner and Sheldon Upthegrove. She and political committees supporting her spent more than $2 million.
Braynon said he had hoped Smith would have pulled it off but he “was a victim of the Trump wave.”
“It was clearly not a good night,” state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
Democrats realized their only Senate gain in Orlando, where the district of outgoing Republican Senate President Andy Gardiner was reconfigured to be a majority Democratic seat. Former State Rep. Linda Stewart, a former Orange County commissioner, easily defeated Republican Dean Asher, a former president of the Florida Realtors.
In the House, Democrats gain two seats in open contests, losing one incumbent in Pasco County, Rep. Amanda Murphy of New Port Richey to Republican Amber Mariano by 732 votes. That loss was offset by the victory of Democrat Carlos Guillermo Smith in District 49, which had been previously represented by Rep. Rene Plasencia, a Republican who moved to District 50, where he won.
In Miami-Dade County, Democrats picked up two seats: Daisy Baez beat Republican John Couriel in District 114 and Democrat Robert Asencio appeared headed for victory over former state Rep. David Rivera, a Republican, with a narrow 68-vote lead. That race is likely to trigger a recount.
The final tally gave Republicans a 79-41 advantage over Democrats, just short of the super-majority they will need to halt debate or accelerate controversial legislation.
Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said before Tuesday he had expected to lose as many as five seats because of the changing demographics and expected surge in Democratic turnout. Instead, he said Republicans also benefited from the Trump wave.
“Despite facing unprecedented electoral obstacles, House Republicans had a great election night,” Corcoran said in a statement. “We won seats that Republicans lost four years ago and despite predictions of Democratic waves in South and Central Florida, we brought home our Republican incumbents who will be joined by an outstanding class of change-oriented new members.”
The Republican stranglehold will be a hospitable climate for a revival of many of the same social and fiscal issues that emerged in past sessions, many of them pitting Republicans in the more-moderate Senate with Republicans in the more conservative House.
Braynon predicts the fights that emerge in next year’s legislative session will be shaped more by intraparty battles than partisan conflict.
“The real friction will be between the Republicans in the Senate and the House and the House and the governor,” he said.
But, Clemens said, with bigger gains, Democrats could have been in better position to slow down Republican policies. “We’re going to see more of the same,” he said.
The ideological fights identified by Negron, Oliva and Corcoran include:
▪ Bathroom bill: Artiles campaigned on bringing back a measure that would have required transgender people to use the bathrooms that match the genders on their birth certificates, and Negron conceded it is likely to come back.
▪ Guns: Incoming Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, while in the House, was a leading sponsor of legislation to allow school personnel to have guns on campus to protect against mass shootings, and incoming Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, was a leading advocate in the House for allowing open carry of firearms in Florida. Negron said he expects those issue will be debated in the Senate.
▪ Immigration: With Trump’s promise to focus on deporting undocumented workers, including those working in construction, agriculture and other industries, the issue could put many Florida lawmakers under fire.
Oliva said it is “too soon to tell what role state government will have in that debate” but suggested that Trump “focus on reforming our immigration policy first. Secure the borders, reflect the realities of today, and then focus attention on making sure the laws are enforced.”
▪ Schools: Corcoran’s list of priorities includes a long list of education reforms aimed at expanding charter schools and providing more opportunities for voucher-like grants for children to attend private schools.
▪ Minimum wage: As part of her re-election effort, Flores moved to the center on environmental and economic issues, at one point endorsing an increase in the state minimum wage. Negron would not say whether or not he expects the full Senate to embrace that stance but does expect Flores to follow through.
“I would expect winning candidates to follow through on promises and commitment of their campaign,” he said. “The whole purpose of the campaign is for each candidate to lay out their philosophies and agenda in a compelling narrative.”