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Race Ratings: Florida Offers Democrats Chances at Pickups

Late last year, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said the party’s “path to 25 seats flows straight through Florida.”

Right now, under a Republican-drawn map signed into law this month, Democrats are likely to pick up only two seats and put a handful of others in play, netting two to four seats in the Sunshine State in November.

But the good news for them: The current map, which mostly protects incumbents, may not be the final one used this fall. Florida Democrats have sued in state court, alleging that the new lines violate a recent voter-approved constitutional amendment — known as “Fair Districts” — that prohibits, among other things, drawing Congressional lines with “the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent.”

While it’s extremely unlikely a court will insist on a complete redraw of lines, strategists in both parties said there were better-than-even odds that at least one district would be tweaked.

Regardless of the court’s decision, under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Congressional map has to be “precleared” by either the Department of Justice or the federal District Court for the District of Columbia.

Among the races to watch in the northern half of the state are the re-election bids of freshman GOP Reps. Steve Southerland and Daniel Webster.

1st district

Incumbent: Jeff Miller (R)

5th full term (80 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

Pensacola anchors this western panhandle district that ranks as the most Republican in state. The current 1st and the redrawn 1st are nearly identical.

Miller, chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, will glide to another term. His voting record, the most conservative in the House, keeps him safe from a primary challenge.

2nd district

Incumbent: Steve Southerland (R)

1st term (54 percent)

Rating: Leans Republican

Tallahassee anchors this district, but the redistricting process at the state Capitol didn’t shore up the already vulnerable lawmaker. Southerland unseated longtime Rep. Allen Boyd (D) in 2010 by a comfortable 13 points, but in his first re-election, he faces a more African-American and Democratic electorate.

Florida Republican operatives fret that the expected get-out-the-vote effort of President Barack Obama’s campaign makes it a tough slog for the former funeral home executive.

Democrats are bullish on their likely nominee, state Rep. Leonard Bembry, a farmer who has been endorsed by the fiscally conservative Blue Dog political action committee. Bembry raised a not-particularly-impressive $126,000 in the fourth quarter of 2011, but local and national Democrats expect him to post better fundraising numbers in the first quarter of this year.

Still, Southerland is an incumbent, and Bembry has to both prove himself and win a primary. If 2010 primary candidate and former state Sen. Al Lawson gets in the race, that could make the primary a real contest. And there’s the wild card of former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, a former Republican who is running as an independent.

The district is one of Democrats’ better opportunities for a pickup in the state, but it’s not tossup territory yet.

3rd district

Incumbent: Cliff Stearns (R)

12th term (71 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

Democrats don’t have any shot in this district, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be an easy stroll to another term for Stearns. He faces a real primary challenge from state Sen. Steve Oelrich, who is prohibited by term limits from running again for his legislative seat. About a third of the district’s population is new to Stearns, so he’ll have to introduce himself to a lot of new voters.

He doesn’t live in the new 3rd, but he plans to move there. Stearns has the edge, but keep an eye on this primary.

4th district

Incumbent: Ander Crenshaw (R)

6th term  (77 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

In redistricting, the 4th was consolidated into a more compact district in the state’s northeastern corner. But Crenshaw will still have most of his current district’s population, and he should cruise to an easy re-election victory.

5th district

Incumbent: Corrine Brown (D)

10th term (63 percent)

Rating: Safe Democratic

Maybe a Republican will think it’s a good idea to run against Brown in 2012. But in a majority-minority district that would have gone more than 70 percent for Barack Obama in 2008, it would be a foolish endeavor. Brown should easily win another term in her serpentine-shaped district, which meanders from Orlando to Jacksonville.

6th district

Open seat: John Mica (R) is running in the 7th district.

Rating: Safe Republican

The Republican primary has just begun for this seat, which has been represented by Mica for years. Given that Mica decided to run in the 7th — where he lives — on Feb. 10, more candidates are still likely to jump in the race for this coastal Republican district that stretches from the Canaveral National Seashore through Daytona Beach up north past St. Augustine.

Former restaurant executive Craig Miller, who switched to this race after dropping his Senate bid, comes with a federal campaign account that had about $150,000 in it. But other candidates will probably give him a run for his money.

In the race now: attorney Ron DeSantis, 33, who served as a Navy JAG officer. Closely eyeing the race is state Rep. and former  Ormond Beach Mayor Fred Costello, who strategists tell Roll Call would be a very formidable contender.

In the end, if Mica doesn’t move back to this district, whichever Republican can raise the most money will probably win.

7th district

Member-vs.-Member: Sandy Adams (R) vs. John Mica (R)

1st term; 10th term

Rating: Safe Republican

If no one blinks, this one could be a bruiser.

Adams and Mica were both drawn into this district, but there was an easy out. Mica’s current district makes up 72 percent of the redrawn 6th. Adams, a tea party favorite who currently represents just more than half of the 7th, announced in late January that she was running for this seat. A source close to her said she was under the impression that Mica wouldn’t run here and is quite surprised to be facing him in a primary.

Florida Republicans familiar with the new district said while it is a better fit for Adams, Mica probably has the early edge given the $860,000 that he had in the bank at the end of last year and the fact that he’s chairman of the Infrastructure and Transportation Committee.

Still, the National Republican Congressional Committee can’t be happy about this primary, which has the potential to divide along tea-party-vs.-establishment lines.

There are persistent rumors in Florida GOP circles that Mica might relent and run in the 6th to avoid a primary or retire. But Mica’s aides insisted he’s in the race in the 7th to win it.

“We wouldn’t be raising money if he planned on retiring,” Chief of Staff Wiley Deck said. “That’s not happening.”

The winner of the Republican primary will be heavily favored to win in November.

8th district

Incumbent: Bill Posey (R)

2nd term (65 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

Posey should easily win another term in his central coastal district, which was shored up in the redraw.

9th district

New district

Rating: Likely Democratic

Congress, get ready! Former Rep. Alan Grayson, the outspoken liberal firebrand, is the likely Democratic nominee in this new Orlando-area district that would have voted 60 percent for Barack Obama in 2008. The central Florida region has seen a considerable increase in its Democrat-friendly Puerto Rican population in recent years, and that’s reflected in this new district, where 41 percent of the voting-age population is Hispanic.

Grayson, who has a penchant for articulating his progressive views in particularly punchy phrases, has had extraordinary fundraising success. He had $637,000 in the bank at the end of last year and no declared primary opponents.

In an interview last week, the triple-Harvard graduate (bachelor’s, master’s and a law degree) ticked through a few of his accomplishments during his two years in the House.

“We set up a mandatory mediation program that cut foreclosures [locally] in half,” Grayson said. He trumpeted passage of the Travel Promotion Act, which encourages international tourists to come to the U.S., and his cooperation with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) to get the Federal Reserve Board audited. And Grayson said he was proud he “changed the terms of the health care debate and introduced a moral element to the debate that turned out to be extremely important.”

The attorney is perhaps best-known for an inspired piece of political theater: his announcement on the House floor that he had found the GOP plan for health care reform. He declared that it was: “Don’t get sick. And if you do get sick, die quickly.”

Republicans hope his outspoken views that sometimes veer into hyperbole end up turning off more moderate voters.

“He turns on the Daily Kos crowd,” Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson said, referring to the progressive website, “but ordinary Florida voters run like hell from this lunatic.”

Asked to respond, Grayson calmly noted that “somehow I’ve succeeded in life that A) I was elected to Congress and B) I was the sixth-richest Member of the House when I was there.”

“I think that drives them crazy,” he said laughing, “and it’s them who are crazy, not me.”

If the GOP can recruit a moderate Puerto Rican candidate to run, perhaps this could be a contest. Florida operatives mention Oscela County Commissioner John “Q” Quiñones (R) as a potential candidate. But for now, Grayson, who lost to Rep. Daniel Webster (R) in 2010 by an embarrassing 18 points, looks to have a surprisingly comfortable path back to the House.

10th district

Incumbent: Daniel Webster (R)

1st term (56 percent)

Rating: Likely Republican

The lines of this district give Florida Democrats heartburn. They see Webster as a vulnerable incumbent, a top-tier Democratic candidate in former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings, and a good narrative in a face-off between the two. But Webster was shored up in the redraw, and his district is Republican-leaning.

The narrative against Webster, who served in the Florida Legislature for 28 years before unseating then-Rep. Alan Grayson (D) in 2010, will be that he’s a career politician ensconced in the right-wing Republican world. Democrats will attempt to create a strong contrast between him and Demings, whom they’ll paint as a public servant beyond partisanship who has worked her whole career to serve and protect the people of Orlando.

It could be a very effective narrative, and, by all accounts, she’s an incredibly solid candidate. Demings’ fundraising ability has been top-notch, and she ended 2011 with $281,000. Still, the current lines make it a difficult journey to unseat Webster. He is known as a nice guy and a savvy politician who has been underestimated his whole career but always seems to come out on top. He’ll emphasize his history as a small-business man and focus on jobs and the economy on the trail.

What gives Florida Democrats hope, however, is the expectation that the courts will step in to change this district in particular for violating the Fair Districts standard. Even some knowledgeable Republicans in the state said there’s a
better-than-even chance that the court asks the Legislature to tweak the 10th.

If that happens, this could be a tossup race. But for now, Democrats are left with a common redistricting conundrum: great candidate, bad district.

11th district

Incumbent: Rich Nugent (R)

1st term (67 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

Nugent will have new territory to cover in this western coastal and central district that stretches from Hernando Beach to Ocala. But if he introduces himself properly to the voters unfamiliar with the former sheriff, Nugent shouldn’t have any problems returning to the 113th Congress. The 11th is solid Republican turf.

12th district

Incumbent: Gus Bilirakis (R)

3rd term (71 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

A bit more than half of Bilirakis’ current district falls in the redrawn 12th, which stretches from the western coast inland, north of Tampa. It’s not the most GOP-friendly in the state, but comfortably Republican enough that it shouldn’t be in play this cycle. The former state Representative, who succeeded his father, has no serious primary or general election challengers.

13th district

Incumbent: Bill Young (R)

21st term (66 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

Former Congressional aide and attorney Jessica Ehrlich (D) announced earlier this week against Young, but that doesn’t mean she has a real shot of beating him.

“Bill Young has represented Pinellas County honorably and admirably, but over his more than 40 years in Congress, he’s changed. Representative Young has lost touch with our values and our priorities and has become a symbol of what’s wrong with Washington,” she said in a statement, telegraphing a likely stump-speech talking point.

But Ehrlich, who worked for then-Rep. Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) and Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), will have a steep road to unseating Young, who was first elected to Congress in 1970.

Florida Democrats tell Roll Call that while the district appears to be a prime pickup opportunity on paper — it would have voted more than 53 percent for Barack Obama in 2008 — the reality is that voters know and like Young, and a majority are probably going to vote for him in 2012, as their parents and grandparents probably did before. Young won with 66 percent of the vote in the current 10th district, which is very similar to the redrawn 13th.

One flag, however: While Young had $220,000 in the bank at the end of last year, he raised just $88,000 in the fourth quarter.

If Young, 81, who has said he is running for re-election, ends up not being on the ballot, this district becomes a good opportunity for Democrats. Republicans in the state said there’s a bench of solid GOP candidates, but without a well-known incumbent, it could be a hard district to keep on the R side of the ledger.

14th district

Incumbent: Kathy Castor (D)

3rd term (60 percent)

Rating: Safe Democratic

The top opponent of Castor, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe (R), suspended his bid for the Tampa- and St. Petersburg-anchored seat earlier this month citing the Democratic-leaning nature of the new lines. That was good news for Castor, who should cruise to a solid victory this cycle.

The second installment of Florida House race ratings (covering the 15th-27th districts) will run Thursday.

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