Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part look at the Sunshine State.
Should Sen. Bob Graham (D) choose to leave the Senate in 2004, the impact of an open-seat race to succeed him in the Sunshine State has the potential to cause the most political ripples south of the Interstate 4 corridor. The highway, which runs from the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area through the citrus and tourist country to Orlando and on to Daytona Beach, is a central dividing line used to separate north and south Florida.
But the diversity of the southern half of the state — from the thriving Cuban population in Miami to the retirement communities of Broward and Palm Beach heavy with New York Jewish transplants, to the touristy citruslands of central “Tamplando” — is a stark contrast to that of the northern part.
While the Senate race could open several safe seats, such as Rep. Peter Deutsch’s (D) 20th district, it could also produce a pair of competitive openings for House Democrats hungry to make inroads in their current 12-seat deficit.
Democrats hoping to expand the playing field of competitive seats could look to target the seats of GOP Reps. Mark Foley and Dave Weldon, should one or both opt into the Senate contest.
Foley is running hard for Graham’s seat with the expectation that it will be open in 2004. However, he has still not said definitively whether he will remain in a race against the three-term Senator and beloved former governor should Graham decide on a re-election bid. Weldon, meanwhile, is exploring a Senate bid in the event Graham does not seek re-election.
If Weldon opts into the Senate race, Democrats will likely put forth their best effort to contest the open-seat 15th district race.
Brevard County Commissioner Nancy Higgs (D), viewed as possibly one of the only Democrats who could win the conservative-leaning seat, is exploring the race and was recently in Washington, D.C., to meet with party officials. Higgs may run regardless of what Weldon does.
Democrat Jim Tso, who took 37 percent of the vote against Weldon in 2002, could also look to run again if the seat opens up.
On the Republican side, state Sens. Bill Posey and Mike Haridopolos are mentioned as candidates if Weldon is not. Posey has said he will definitely run in an open-seat situation. Weldon has held the central Space Coast-area seat since 1994.
A lengthy list of other potential Republican candidates has also been floated for the seat. It includes Florida GOP Chairwoman Carole Jean Jordan, state Rep. Mitch Needelman, former state Rep. Randy Ball, Brevard County Sheriff Phil Williams and ex-Palm Bay City Councilor Helen Voltz.
In Foley’s neighboring 16th district, several Republicans are lining up to run. State Reps. Gayle Harrell and Joe Negron have already announced they are seeking the GOP nod. Other Republicans mulling a bid are former state Rep. Tom Warner and attorney Rob Siedlecki.
A Democratic operative noted that Foley’s seat is a hybrid of urban West Palm Beach and rural counties, a combination that during an open election gives his party a shot.
“It’s a seat Democrats ought to be looking at,” the operative noted.
Martin County business consultant Don Delaney (D) is currently looking at the race. West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel (D), a former state legislator, is also mentioned, although it is not clear how much interest she has in a House race.
State Sen. Ron Kline (D) “really wants to be in Congress. Very badly wants to be in Congress,” said a Democratic consultant.
Also, state Sen. David Arronberg (D) “would be crazy not to look at it,” the consultant said.
While Democrats could compete in the 15th and 16th districts, which voted 54 percent and 53 percent respectively for George W. Bush in 2000, Rep. Clay Shaw’s (R) Palm Beach/Broward-based 22nd district continues to be the Democrats’ best pick-up opportunity.
However, after Shaw narrowly won re-election in 2000, last cycle he won a convincing 61 percent to 38 percent victory even as Democrats targeted him again. But the opportunity for Democrats in the South Florida district, the center of the 2000 White House balloting controversy, is likely enhanced in a presidential election year.
In 2004, state Rep. Stacy Ritter (D) is considering taking on the 12-term Ways and Means subcommittee chairman, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is trying to convince her to enter the race.
Meanwhile, an interesting race could be on the horizon in Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s (R) 21st district seat in central-west Miami-Dade County.
Cuban American National Foundation Executive Director Joe Garcia (D) has publicly attacked Diaz-Balart in recent weeks, calling the Congressman politically “impotent” for failing to influence the Bush administration’s policy toward Cuba.
The foundation, and other Cuban exile leaders, are fuming from the recent decision by the White House to deport 12 Cuban migrants suspected of hijacking a boat to reach Florida. Diaz-Balart and two other area lawmakers publicly decried the administration’s decision.
The decision highlights what some Cuban Republicans say is a growing frustration with the policies of an administration they are credited with helping elect.
The 21st has the highest Hispanic population — 70 percent — of any district in the state. Of that, 58 percent are of Cuban descent and more than eight in 10 of the 400,000 Cuban-Americans living in Florida supported Bush and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush (R), who was re-elected in 2002.
One Democratic consultant said that newly immigrated Hispanic voters are trending more Democratic, although they are not necessarily concentrated in one particular area of the state.
“Those people who are moving to Florida from Puerto Rico are overwhelmingly, although clearly not in overwhelming numbers, Democratic,” the consultant said.
Another Democrat in the state called a Garcia challenge to Diaz-Balart “a very real possibility” and noted that he would be viewed as a strong candidate within the Cuban community, allowing him to draw support from the Congressman’s base.
Diaz-Balart has faced only one challenge since winning the newly-created Republican seat in 1992, when he ran un-opposed. In 1998, he took 75 percent against a Democratic opponent who spent less than $30,000.
Still, a Democratic consultant said the political fall-out from the boat incident would probably not be felt by Diaz-Balart.
“George W. Bush gets the digs for that, not Lincoln,” the consultant said.
Interesting primaries could also develop in the 20th and 23rd, should Deutsch and Rep. Alcee Hastings (D) opt into the Senate race.
In the majority-black 23rd, state Sen. Mandy Dawson (D) and incoming state House Minority Leader Chris Smith (D) are mentioned as possible candidates to succeed Hastings, who has formed a Senate exploratory committee.
Deutsch, meanwhile, is running for Senate if Graham is not. State Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) is considered the leading Democrat in an open-seat race and is already raising money to run to replace Deutsch.
Two other possible Democratic candidates are Broward County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger and Ilene Lieberman.
David Perera contributed to this report.