It’s called a primary, but the election on Aug. 30 could be a defining moment for the Florida Legislature.
Across the state, primary races soon to be decided by a relative handful of voters may determine whether the Florida Senate stays on its moderate course or shifts to the right as new battles loom over abortion, education, guns and the environment.
The primary may decide whether Gov. Rick Scott will have more friends in the Capitol next spring, and whether deep-pocket newcomers can duplicate Scott’s success and use their personal wealth to catapult themselves to office.
From Miami to Pensacola, primary candidates and their allies are spending millions on TV spots, mailers, polls and phone calls, some of it highly personal, most of it negative, and all of it aimed at “super voters” who faithfully show up in primary elections.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“The primaries this year seem to be very intense,” said Marian Johnson, the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s long-time political director. “The question is how many people will come out?”
If past primaries are any indication, turnout will be about a fifth of the statewide pool of 12.4 million voters.
This fragment of the overall voting population will elect winners in at least a dozen Senate seats and 34 House seats because only one party offered serious candidates or the districts are dominated by one party.
These 46 races reveal a Florida legislative landscape that’s dark red or deep blue, but not much in between.
Most Florida voters will ignore these legislative races, giving a bigger voice to those who do bother to cast ballots.
It’s even more lopsided when the 46 one-sided primary contests are added to the 42 legislators who already won in June because they faced no opponents. Combined, it means that a clear majority of the Legislature’s 160 members — 55 percent — will be set before Labor Day.
“It’s awful,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who battled Republicans on redistricting and is retiring because of term limits.
Barring major upsets, little change is expected in the partisan composition of a Legislature, where Republicans hold 26 of 40 Senate seats and 81 of 120 House seats.
What will be left for the high-turnout November general election are fewer than a dozen seats that are truly competitive between Republicans and Democrats.
The political landscape remains tilted even after three years of legal skirmishes in which the League of Women Voters and other groups convinced judges to reject the Legislature’s map of Senate districts. The former boundaries were deemed to have been rigged to benefit Republicans, a violation of a constitutional prohibition against partisan gerrymandering, but Democrats don’t seem to have capitalized on the friendlier districts.
“It’s not the election that everybody was thinking it was going to be after redistricting,” said the Chamber’s Johnson.
The fiercest primary contests are family feuds, one-party fights between conservative Republicans or between liberal Democrats that lock out the millions of voters who are not registered with either party.
Desperate for any advantage, candidates and groups mount hard-hitting ad campaigns tailored to narrow issues, such as a single vote in Tallahassee.
In a dollar-driven system in which the candidate with the most money usually wins, well-heeled candidates are opening their wallets on a scale not seen before at a time when the cost of a Senate campaign easily tops $1 million.
Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, loaned his Senate campaign $730,000 for a job that pays $29,697 a year. Slosberg faces Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, in a winner-take-all race that has become increasingly caustic.
Democratic Senate candidate Michael Steinger, a West Palm Beach lawyer, has spent $340,000 of his money.
Democrat Augie Ribeiro, a lawyer in St. Petersburg, loaned his Senate bid $302,500.
Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, loaned her Senate campaign $500,000.
Mayfield and Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, are locked in an expensive and mean-spirited race for a Senate seat in the shadows of Cape Canaveral.
Mayfield hammered Workman for voting to allow a Tampa lawyer who was not a citizen to practice law in Florida, a 2014 bill backed by most Republicans and signed by Scott. It could sway public opinion in a year in which Donald Trump has made immigration a central theme of his campaign.
A pro-Workman website — mayfieldfacts.com, designed as a mock Drudge Report — is raising a flurry of ethics charges against Mayfield.
In a Senate primary in Fort Lauderdale, two Democrats are hammering each other over who’s more Republican — trial attorney Gary Farmer or former Rep. Jim Waldman.
A win by Farmer, who has spent years lobbying for trial lawyers, would give a major interest group added presence in a Senate known for frequent battles between lawyers and business groups. A third Democrat, Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, is also running.
In a Senate primary in Pensacola, Republican Reps. Doug Broxson and Mike Hill are both being bludgeoned by third-party groups.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce, which supported Scott’s unsuccessful effort to get $250 million for a jobs incentive fund, blasted Hill in a TV spot for voting against the bill.
Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-backed group that opposes incentives to private companies, has sent mail pieces calling Broxson a tool of “corporate welfare” interests.
“We telegraph very clearly during the legislative session that we’re going to be active in holding them accountable for the votes they take,” said AFP’s Andres Malave.
In a week or so, the attacks will subside, temporarily, as primary votes are counted.
County election supervisors say more than half of all votes will already have been cast early or by mail before Aug. 30.
Despite Florida’s track record of dismal primary turnouts, there’s a ray of optimism because turnout for the presidential preference primary in March was 46 percent, the highest since 1976.
Primary turnout also could benefit from spirited local races, such as for sheriff and school superintendent in areas such as Clay County, south of Jacksonville.
“I’m hoping for 50 percent,” Clay Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless said.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @stevebousquet on Twitter.
Races to watch
Six decisive legislative primaries and why they matter:
Senate District 38, Miami-Dade
Rep. Daphne Campbell is among six Democrats seeking to replace retiring Sen. Gwen Margolis
Senate District 34, Broward
Ugly, costly Democratic bloodbath between trial lawyer Gary Farmer and ex-Rep. Jim Waldman
Senate District 19, Tampa Bay
Reps. Ed Narain, Darryl Rouson, ex-Rep. Betty Reed and lawyer Augie Ribeiro in cross-bay battle defined by race and geography
Senate District 1, Pensacola-Gulf Breeze
GOP fight between Reps. Doug Broxson and Mike Hill tests power of third-party groups’ attacks on candidates’ records
House District 118, Miami-Dade
Controversial ex-U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a Marco Rubio ally, tests willingness of voters to forgive in crowded GOP race
House District 73, Sarasota-Manatee
Early-bird Trump supporter Joe Gruters faces Tea Party activist Steve Vernon for open GOP seat
Source: Times/Herald research