TALLAHASSEE — Florida Democrats have become experts at losing close elections. Nobody else comes close to doing it with such consistency. Naturally, Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum come to mind, but there are so many.
So let’s start with the Florida House. By a 32-vote landslide, Republican Rep. Mike Caruso defeated Democrat Jim Bonfiglio two years ago in a House race in Palm Beach County.
A much larger margin, 61 votes, put Republican Elizabeth Fetterhoff in the House over Democrat Patrick Henry in a race on the I-4 corridor in Volusia. Right there you have two seats won by Republicans by a total of 93 votes. Bonfiglio and Henry are trying to win them back this time.
In two other 2018 House contests in Miami-Dade, Republicans won by 417 and 579 votes. Add that all up, and it’s four GOP victories by a little more than 1,000 votes.
“They’re up for grabs,” says Laurie Watkins, the House Democrats' top strategist, who has Broward ties. “Voters want choices.”
Can Democrats do better? If they can’t gain ground this year, it’s probably impossible. There’s the leveling effects of a pandemic, a Republican governor whose popularity has nosedived, an expected huge voter turnout and a self-destructive and increasingly dangerous Donald J. Trump as a potential huge drag on the Republican ticket.
“I do not think this is a good year for Republicans,” says Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura.
Legislative races are often decided by purely local factors such as a winning candidate’s messaging or the “ground game” of targeting voters. But this year, turnout on both sides will be driven largely by Trump, and in the back of their minds, Republicans realize a collapse of epic proportions is possible.
Under this scenario, many dispirited Republicans lose hope and don’t bother to vote and GOP candidates are buried under an avalanche of Democratic ballots. Under this far-fetched scenario, Democrats incredibly net 14 seats and reclaim the House after 24 years in a lonely and dispiriting exile. Democrats claim they won’t even consider that possibility, Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, told me.
Hardly anybody in today’s Tallahassee can recall the days of the “Broward Mafia,” when Democrats ran the House (at times with even more arrogance than today’s Republicans) and Broward controlled most of the levers of power. After years of slow, steady Democratic losses, it finally came crashing down on Nov. 5, 1996, when Republicans pulled off a couple of upsets and achieved a majority.
Today, Republicans hold 72 House seats and Democrats 46 with two seats vacant in Broward and Tampa. Democrats hope to pick up enough seats to get to the low to mid-50′s, which would create a sense of momentum entering the next reapportionment cycle in 2022. But it can’t happen unless they “flip” Republican seats.
They could start by winning the so-called “Gillum 7,” seven seats where Gillum beat Ron DeSantis in the race for governor, but the Democratic House candidate lost (four of them are the ones cited above). Other battlegrounds are in Hillsborough, Orange and Seminole counties, areas trending blue, and a definite “flip” target is coastal Broward’s District 93, where Republican Chip LaMarca tries to fend off a challenge from Linda Thompson Gonzalez.
Republicans say it won’t happen.
Statewide, Democrats continue to lose their historic advantage in total voters. But they are far outpacing Republicans so far in vote-by-mail ballot requests. GOP strategists say it’s the result of a cannibalizing of votes by Democrats who in other years would have voted early or on election day.
Democrats have candidates in 119 of 120 House districts. The party is spending more on down-ballot races. Former President Barack Obama endorsed several legislative candidates, and Democrats have a much stronger candidate for president this year than they had four years ago. Can they gain ground in the House?
If not now, when?
“They won’t,” says Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, the Republican House speaker-designate. “We’re going to have an amazing night.”
Steve Bousquet is a Sun Sentinel columnist. Contact him at email@example.com or (850) 567-2240.