Democrats Betting Big on Florida Redistricting

New Fair Districts Law Will Prevent Major GOP Gerrymander, but Huge Gains Are Not Likely

Posted November 7, 2011 at 6:15pm

Florida is a state where, as millions of Disney World-bound children know, dreams come true.

But for national Democrats who hope a new redistricting law will help them pick up five or six House seats — and boost their prospects for winning back the House — the Sunshine State reality won’t be so warm.

At the end of 2010, Democrats had a voter registration advantage of 592,000 in the state, which voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Yet they only hold six of the 25 House seats in the Congressional delegation.

Democrats hope a new voter-approved Fair Districts amendment to the state constitution, which prohibits legislators from drawing Congressional lines “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent,” will put the wind at their backs for 2012 races.

“Our path to 25 seats flows straight through Florida,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said last week.

But with Republicans in control of both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion, a map that substantially improves Democrats’ representation in Congress is unlikely.

While discussions of the lines are closely held and the election is still a year away, GOP and Democratic strategists in the state currently expect the range of Democratic pickups to be two to four. Given the current climate there, the lower end of that range appears more reasonable. Some currently solid GOP districts will definitely be more vulnerable after a redraw, but few will become veritable tossups.

Florida Republican consultants expect the mapmakers to be careful not to overreach. Passing a strongly partisan map that could end up scuttled — and even redrawn — by a court, would be akin to a game of Russian roulette for the state GOP.

Still, it remains unclear what exactly would constitute an overreach under the new guidelines, which also require districts to be compact and respectful of existing geographic boundaries “where feasible.”

Sunshine State strategists believe that because the new regulation prohibits “intent” in drawing a district for a partisan or incumbent-protection reason, the inevitable outcome will be extended litigation. People who like the map will insist mapmakers’ intent followed the law, opponents will cry foul, then a judge will decide.

Lawsuits filed against the Fair Districts amendment for Congressional lines have, so far, been unsuccessful. An appeal is pending in 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, where oral arguments are expected in early January. National Democrats are confident that the new regulations will stand.

The Legislature appears likely to pass maps early in its 2012 session, which begins in January, to leave time for any judicial challenges before the June filing deadline. In the redraw, they’ll be adding two new districts allotted to the state by reapportionment.

Sunshine State Republicans are realistic about the fact that any redraw will be detrimental to some of their Members because the map is exceedingly advantageous to them now.

But given the anti-Obama political climate, which appears likely to weigh down the ballot, “the number of Members we thought were going to be in danger has decreased,” one Florida GOP operative said. The source now believes that a two-seat pickup is the best scenario for Democrats in 2012.

“I think they have figured out, rightly, that the smart thing to do is to comply with Fair Districts,” said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who ran the 2008 Obama/Biden campaign in the state. He noted that compliance with the new amendment meant some marginal Republican-held districts would become competitive and some competitive districts would become even more favorable to Democrats.

That’s probable, but some of those marginal and competitive districts might not be genuinely in play this cycle if the climate remains unfriendly for the top of the Democratic ticket. In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 57 percent of registered voters disapproved of the way the president was handling his job; only 39 percent approved. The unemployment rate in Florida has remained mired at about 10.7 percent during the summer and into the fall.

Meanwhile, if the maps become embroiled in lengthy court hearings, anything could happen.

And in the eventuality that a judge draws the lines, Democrats won’t necessarily find themselves with a bonanza of new seats. One 2009 study from professors at Stanford University and the University of Michigan found that because of the nature of the geographic distribution of Democratic voters in Florida, the GOP would have a natural edge in a purely nonpartisan Congressional map.

Democrats are hopeful that, despite the national climate, they can use local issues to their advantage.

“We’ve got a couple of cards in our hands that they don’t have nationally that we think we can play,” one influential Florida Democrat said. The source noted Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s unpopularity, legislation the GOP Legislature has passed that won’t sit well with voters, and the increased Democratic voter turnout in a year with Obama on the ballot.

Top pickup opportunities for Democrats are expected to be a new seat likely to be drawn in the Orlando area; the southern Florida district represented by Rep. David Rivera, who is under investigation for “financial improprieties”; Rep. Allen West’s coastal district near Palm Beach; and Rep. Daniel Webster’s central Florida district.

It appears most Democratic Members are safe this cycle, though some of their districts might be targeted in the redraw.

One scenario floated is that Republicans might try to add 15,000 GOP voters to the district of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to make her re-election a bit tougher and force her to take time away from stumping for Obama.

Asked last week whether she faced an added disadvantage in the redistricting process as DNC head, Wasserman Schultz chuckled. “I’m sure they are going to do their best to make my life difficult, but that’s OK. It comes with the territory,” she said, walking down the steps of the Capitol. “If I’m on the ballot, and they want a race, they’re going to get a race. And they better be ready.”