Florida Democrats on the March

Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:15pm

Following one of the most successful GOP-led redistricting efforts of the 2002 election cycle, Florida Democrats have started to make some inroads by winning a net gain of three Congressional seats over the past four years.

Sunshine State Democrats are now staring down the next round of redistricting, a process that will take place after the 2010 Census and is likely to be controlled by Republicans again. So in the coming election cycle, the party has one more shot at picking up seats under the current Congressional map, and they insist there is still room to grow in a state where the GOP controls 15 of 25 House seats.

As they take an early look at the 2010 landscape, Democrats begin with one major advantage on their side — a voter registration edge of more than 650,000 against the GOP as of October.

Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D), who will serve as a vice chairwoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee next cycle, said last week that “our ability to make gains was this cycle, and will continue to be, about money, message and mobilization.”

Wasserman Schultz said Florida Democrats in 2008 “were able to dramatically increase the number of Democratic registered voters. We were able to turn those voters out. Our candidates were well-funded. And they had a message that resonated with voters in the state of Florida because voters here are hungry for change.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine that the national terrain in 2010 will be better for Democrats than it was in 2006 and 2008. Unpopular President George W. Bush will be long gone, and Democratic President-elect Barack Obama is entering the White House in the midst of an economic downturn that isn’t expected to turn around any time soon. Another “change” message will be hard for Democrats to sell with their strong majorities in the House and Senate.

Republicans are already eager to win back some of their lost seats in Florida as they look forward to a correction after two cycles of wave elections for Democrats.

Palm Beach County Republican Party Chairman Sid Dinerstein said last week that 2008 “was Democrats’ last chance” to make gains in the state before the next redraw.

“I think we’re going to be very aggressive in two years,” he added. “The future is all ours.”

Regardless of which side is on offense more in the coming cycle, it seems certain that despite it being a nonpresidential election year, Florida will be a political hotbed once again. The shake-up has already begun with Sen. Mel Martinez’s (R) recent announcement that he plans to retire in 2010.

Meanwhile, one of the top House targets in Florida for Democrats will likely be the south-central 16th district of Rep.-elect Tom Rooney (R). Apart from being vulnerable simply by virtue of the fact that he’s a freshman, Rooney is sitting in a seat that Democrats believe would still be theirs if Rep. Tim Mahoney (D) hadn’t hit the self-destruct button on his political career with a sex scandal that erupted in October.

Mahoney, who narrowly won the seat of disgraced ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R) in 2006, was defeated by Rooney on Election Day by 20 points. But Democrats believe Rooney is an accidental Congressman, the same argument Republicans made when Mahoney won.

Democrats believe population shifts have only benefitted their chances in the 16th, especially in St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties, which Obama won handily, and Charlotte County, which McCain narrowly won. Still, it isn’t clear that they have a deep bench of candidates who could look to run there.

Party strategists are also eagerly looking at possible pickups in the western and central 10th and 12th districts, especially with talk that either or both seats could turn into open-seat races in 2010.

In the 10th district. GOP Rep. Bill Young — who turns 78 on Tuesday — remains a perennial target of retirement rumors and his seat has become increasingly favorable to Democrats. Even after GOP redistricters in 2002 made the seat more Republican so that the party could hold it after Young left, Bush still won just 51 percent of the vote there in 2004. This cycle, Pinellas County, which the 10th district lies within, went narrowly for Obama.

Further west in the 12th district, there is some speculation that Rep. Adam Putnam (R) might be eyeing a statewide bid after announcing he was stepping down from his position as House GOP Conference chairman on election night. Putnam is one name that has been mentioned on the GOP side for Martinez’s Senate seat.

But with former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) considering a Senate run — and he would clear the Republican field if he does decide to throw his hat in the ring — Putnam might also have his eye on a job in the state’s executive branch. If it were to become open, the 12th district seat would be less favorable ground for Democrats than the 10th — Bush won 58 percent there in 2004 — but it would likely be a competitive target.

Depending on how well Democratic recruiting efforts pan out, a slew of other GOP Members could be on Democratic target lists in 2010. They include Rep.-elect Bill Posey and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who both took 53 percent of the vote this year, and sophomore Rep. Vern Buchanan, who took 55 percent in a rematch against Democrat Christine Jennings.

But Republicans believe Democrats will be too busy playing defense next cycle to do much to threaten GOP seats.

Democrats have two freshman Members of their own to protect: the 8th district’s Rep.-elect Alan Grayson and the 24th district’s Rep.-elect Suzanne Kosmas.

Also, Rep. Allen Boyd (D) has already expressed his interest in a Senate bid, and his 2nd district seat would certainly be a battleground if he decides to vacate it. Rep. Ron Klein’s (D) 22nd district might also become a target for Republicans if he were to decide to run for the Senate seat.

“Democrats have vulnerable incumbents considering runs for the Senate, a ticking time bomb in Alan Grayson and a liberal sitting in a staunchly conservative district in Suzanne Kosmas,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said last week. “Claiming they are on the offensive in Florida because they hope to target a seat that Tim Mahoney accidentally occupied for two years is laughable.”