Florida Politics

Democrats see hope in Florida Supreme Court ruling for new districts, but much remains unclear

U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, pictured here in Doral in 2013, are two of three Miami Republicans whose congressional districts must be redrawn.
U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, pictured here in Doral in 2013, are two of three Miami Republicans whose congressional districts must be redrawn. EL NUEVO HERALD

For Florida Democrats, the dream 2016 scenario goes like this: A Democrat gets elected to Congress in Tampa. Another one in Orlando. A third in Miami. The party picks up three seats, suddenly holding almost half of the state’s congressional delegation.

But Thursday’s ruling by the Florida Supreme Court ordering that the state’s congressional map be redrawn doesn’t guarantee the Democrats’ wishes will come true.

The court’s 5-2 decision landed as a political bombshell 16 months before an election in the country’s largest swing state. Two of the districts directly affected already have nationally watched competitive races. Yet it’s too early to know exactly how everything will play out, especially considering how the state Democratic Party has struggled to seize past opportunities.

Much will depend on the Republican-controlled Florida House and Senate, which are responsible for creating the new boundaries. The court wants eight of the state’s 27 congressional districts redrawn in 100 days, though more districts will almost certainly be affected.

What gives Democrats hope is that the eight targeted districts are in the state’s most populated — read: most liberal — areas: Three are based in Miami-Dade County and two in Broward and Palm Beach; two lie in the Tampa Bay area; and one stretches from Jacksonville to Orlando.

“The three highly dense populations in the state are areas where Democrats tend to benefit the most,” said Christian Ulvert, a Miami Democratic consultant.

Democrats’ best opportunity may be in Tampa, where lawmakers could reconfigure Republican Rep. David Jolly’s district to include the southern tip of St. Petersburg — a left-leaning area now in Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor’s district. Jolly’s seat was already considered competitive for Democrats; Castor’s district is so deeply blue that losing a portion of that base would probably not be enough to put her in serious danger.

The possibility of losing his seat could push Jolly to instead run for the U.S. Senate in 2016. He has already flirted with the idea.

“No decision yet,” Jolly spokeswoman Sarah Bascom said in an email to the Miami Herald.

In Central Florida, Democrats could benefit if Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown’s snaking district results in a chunk of Democratic voters moving to districts of either Rep. John Mica of Orlando or Rep. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, both Republicans. But giving Brown a larger portion of North Florida could cause headaches for another Democrat, Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee.

The two women could both end up in the same district, or one of their districts could lose so many Democrats as to make it difficult for both of them to win. If Graham were left out, she could start running for another position — say, Florida governor in 2018. Her name has repeatedly surfaced for the job after she became the only Florida Democrat to win a swing seat in 2014.

Graham’s spokesman said she had not had time yet to review the court’s decision, citing a busy schedule.

“There is no guarantee that there will be more opportunities for Democrats,” said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan political analyst group in Washington. “This could be another case of be careful what you wish for.”

The two districts to be redrawn in Broward and Palm Beach are solidly Democratic, held by Reps. Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach and Ted Deutch of Boca Raton. There’s a chance the two colleagues could find themselves in the same district, but it’s an unlikely region for Republicans to make many gains.

Things are messier in Miami-Dade, where the court called for the three districts held by Cuban-American Republicans to be reorganized. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s district includes a portion of Hendry County in Southwest Florida that should be kept together, the court ruled. Giving the rest of the county to Diaz-Balart would turn the district less red but perhaps not enough to counter heavily Republican Collier County and Northwest Miami-Dade.

That leaves Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, whose districts divide the city of Homestead. The freshman Curbelo already has a target on his back — his district is nearly evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and independents — and getting an influx of Homestead Democrats could make his re-election more difficult. Or they could go to Ros-Lehtinen, making her district more competitive.

As a longtime incumbent with widespread name recognition and some moderate positions, Ros-Lehtinen hardly appeared concerned.

“It has been an incredible experience to have represented every part of Miami-Dade County during my years of public service so in whatever form the district ends up, it will be like coming home again,” she said in a statement. “No worries.”

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