State Politics

Can Democrats win back the Florida Legislature? It’s possible, but not likely.

Andrew Gillum announces plan to improve Florida’s education

Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum have different ideas on what they’d do as governor to improve education in Florida. One thing they agree on is that teachers should have higher pay.
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Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum have different ideas on what they’d do as governor to improve education in Florida. One thing they agree on is that teachers should have higher pay.

Andrew Gillum has big plans for Florida, but the governor doesn’t make the laws.

That job falls to the Florida Legislature, the government branch composed of 40 senators and 120 House representatives.

Although the dramatic governor’s race between Gillum and his Republican opponent, former U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, has drawn much of the political spotlight in recent weeks, the race for control of Florida’s two legislative bodies could prove just as pivotal to the future of the state.

“If Republicans maintain control of the House, which seems likely, then it’s going to be very difficult for Andrew Gillum to get most of his agenda through the Legislature,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

Even if Florida has a divided government after November’s election, every vote in the Legislature is going to matter — particularly if Gillum inherits a Republican-led House and Senate.

Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, has indicated two of Gillum’s signature proposals, Medicaid expansion and a corporate tax increase, are dead on arrival in the Senate as it is now.

Gillum has said he would use his veto power as governor to forge compromises with Republicans. Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor turned Democratic congressman, said he believes that tactic can be successful in the face of an unwilling Legislature.

Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton Florida Senate

“You can’t underestimate the power of that veto pen,” Crist said at a news conference Tuesday in St. Petersburg.

Still, Democrats say it would be nice if Gillum had a friendlier Legislature to work with. Republicans have a firm grasp on both chambers, with a 23-16 advantage in the Senate and a 79-41 edge in the House.

Although those numbers present a monumental challenge, insiders and experts say Democrats have their best chance to regain control of one or both chamber in decades.

That doesn’t mean it’s a very good chance. In the Senate, where 20 seats are up for grabs in 2018, Democrats would have to flip five districts in order to gain a majority. Democrats are running fairly strong in two: the high-profile battle for Tampa Republican Dana Young’s seat in Senate District 18 and the race for Gainesville Republican Keith Perry’s Senate District 8 seat.

But Young and Perry have raised more money than their Democratic opponents, state House minority leader Janet Cruz and physician Kayser Enneking. Even if Democrats can win those seats, the races will be competitive.

It’s difficult to see where the other three Democratic pick-ups would come from. Doug Lyons, the communications director for the Democratic Party’s Senate Victory effort, said the party is also looking closely at the Central Florida Senate District 22 race between Democrat Bob Doyel and incumbent Republican Kelli Stargel; the Senate District 16 race for the open northern Pinellas and Pasco seat formerly occupied by Republican Jack Latvala; and the Senate District 24 race in St. Petersburg between incumbent Republican Jeff Brandes and Democrat Lindsay Cross.

“If I had to put money down, I’d say that Republicans will keep control of the Senate,” Jewett said.

Galvano, who also chairs the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he doesn’t expect his party to lose any seats.

“I’m optimistic that we can pick up a seat,” Galvano said in an interview. In the race for control of the state House, the Democrats’ task is even taller. The party would need to pick up a net of 20 seats in order to gain power in the lower chamber.

Marisol Samayoa, the communications director for the Democratic House Victory effort, said the party is targeting 10 to 12 seats in November — not enough to win back a majority.

The good news for Democrats is that 2018 is poised to be a near-perfect political storm for the party, said Darryl Paulson, an emeritus professor of government at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Paulson noted that polls show that anti-Donald Trump energy has mobilized women and minority voters in a way Florida hasn’t seen in many election cycles. Even Republicans admit the energy on the left is palpable because of the noise coming out of Washington, D.C.

“It’s a tough atmosphere out there and we’re watching it every day,” Galvano said. The Trump-fueled energy has helped Democrats recruit first-time candidates across the state.

For the first time in recent memory, Democrats are fielding candidates in every state Senate race. Enneking, the Democratic candidate in the Gainesville Senate race, said she told her husband before the 2016 presidential election that if Trump won, she would run for office.

“[After Election Day] I was one of the 26,000 women across the country who said, ‘This is nuts. I’m going to just do this.’ ”

Emma Collum, a progressive activist and the Democratic candidate in the competitive race for the open House District 93 seat in Broward County, said she had similar reasons for getting into her race.

“I was just so shocked because the rhetoric — against women, against Muslims, against immigrants — was so ugly. I just kept thinking, ‘An adult has to come in and stop this,’ ” Collum said.

But that energy won’t necessarily translate to Democratic victories. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who’s running for re-election in the Senate District 10 race in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, said he doesn’t buy the narrative of a blue wave in 2018.

Even if Democrats are upset about Trump, Simpson said, voters will continue to elect Republicans in Florida because of the party’s two-decade track record.

“When you’re looking at our economy and our education system,” Simpson said, “that gives me a lot of confidence that people are going to want to keep that going.”

For all of the big-picture talk, candidates on both sides of the aisle said voters are less interested in Tallahassee politics than issues that affect them locally.

“I’ve knocked thousands of doors,” said Chip LaMarca, Collum’s Republican opponent in House District 93. “I’ve yet to hear anybody say ‘the Democrats need to take it back’ or ‘the Republicans need to keep it.’ ”