State Politics

Trump’s tone at the top looms over GOP hopefuls in down-ballot Florida races

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigns Aug. 3, 2016, in Jacksonville. Trump’s candidacy is ‘doing us no favors in Miami-Dade,’ according to Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the incoming Florida House speaker in speaking about the coming races for state legislative seats.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigns Aug. 3, 2016, in Jacksonville. Trump’s candidacy is ‘doing us no favors in Miami-Dade,’ according to Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the incoming Florida House speaker in speaking about the coming races for state legislative seats. AP

As Florida’s primary election results sank in Wednesday, both parties shifted attention to the main event: the November election, where the dominant factor is Donald Trump.

In fights for seats in the state Legislature, one-sided primaries Tuesday sent many new faces to the Capitol, taking those seats off the political chessboard.

That shrinks the battleground to fewer places — mostly in Miami, Tampa Bay and along the I-4 corridor. Changing demographics and stronger two-party competition mean either side can win in a high-turnout presidential election — especially with the wildly unpredictable Trump at the top of the Republican ticket.

Encouraged by Republican resistance to Trump’s hard-edged message, Democrats like their chances in open Senate seats in Tampa and Gainesville and against a Republican in Miami in an area where Democrats have the advantage in voter registration.

What worries establishment Republicans is that Trump’s divisive talk, especially about immigration, will force many South Florida Hispanics to flee the Republican Party.

“Donald Trump is doing us no favors in Miami-Dade,” said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the incoming House speaker.

Corcoran predicted that a group of Hispanic House incumbents will win — despite Trump’s drag on the ticket in the state’s most diverse county.

What’s harder, he said, is winning open seats, such as House District 114 in Coral Gables and West Miami where Republican John Couriel faces Democrat Daisy Baez.

Presidential elections always produce a surge of one-time voters in Florida. In the past two such years, 2008 and 2012, they proved decisive for Barack Obama and helped other Democratic candidates, too.

Many of those voters have no party affiliation, but they could affect down-ballot races for the state Senate and House.

The Senate battlegrounds are Tampa, an open seat where Republican Rep. Dana Young faces Democrat Bob Buesing, and Gainesville, an open seat where GOP Rep. Keith Perry faces Democrat Rod Smith, a former senator and state attorney.

Two more Senate skirmishes loom in Miami-Dade.

Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla faces a challenge from Democratic Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, and Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard is in a redrawn Hispanic-majority seat facing a well-financed Republican Rep. Frank Artiles.

Both parties and their interest group allies will be aggressively polling in all those races. To be competitive, Republican candidates should be polling ahead of Trump and Democrats should be within striking distance of where Obama was four years ago.

Partisan control of the Legislature is not in doubt because Republicans have big cushions. They hold 81 of 120 House seats and 26 of 40 Senate seats.

Democrats plan to target a handful of races where they feel they have their best chances of winning as part of their long-term “path to parity,” as they call it, while Hillary Clinton’s campaign floods Florida with hundreds of workers.

“We can only play to win,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the new House Democratic leader. “We’re going to play in a handful of seats where we know we have a goal of victory.”

Democrats are counting on a wave of presidential-year voters in districts where Republicans are vulnerable.

Two of those House seats are in suburban Tampa, where Reps. Shawn Harrison of Tampa and Ross Spano of Dover have credible Democratic opponents. Republican voters are outnumbered by Democratic voters in both districts. Another district, where incumbent Republican Rep. Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena faces Democrat Jennifer Webb, is evenly split between the two parties.

A fourth House battleground is in Orlando, where Republican Rep. Mike Miller battles a credible foe, Beth Tuura, on turf with an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

For their part, House Republicans will target open seats held by Democrats in St. Petersburg, Miami and Tallahassee and a fourth seat in Pasco County, held by Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey.

In the primary on Tuesday, voters elected 10 new state senators who face no serious November opposition.

Most of them are current House members.

They include Republicans Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Doug Broxson of Gulf Breeze, Debbie Mayfield of Vero Beach and Kathleen Passidomo of Naples; and Democrats Randolph Bracy and Victor Torres of Orlando, Bobby Powell and Kevin Rader of West Palm Beach, Gary Farmer of Fort Lauderdale and Daphne Campbell of Miami.

Two more newcomers, Republican Greg Steube of Sarasota and Democrat Linda Stewart of Orlando, are favored to win Senate seats on Nov. 8.

They are among at least 18 new senators, the greatest one-year turnover in the 40-person chamber since term limits took effect in Florida in 2000.

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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