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Competitive Florida Field Shrinks in ’14

The Sunshine State has earned its reputation as a political battleground, filled with possibility and peril for Republicans and Democrats looking to pick up seats.

But much like the national House landscape, Florida’s congressional playing field could be the smallest in years this cycle.

“My sense is this year is going to be more ’98-esque,” Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale said, referring to a midterm election in which every Florida congressional incumbent won. “It doesn’t feel like it’s going to be a wave election.”

Twenty-one months before Floridians hit the polls, the big question is whether unpopular Republican Gov. Rick Scott — and his to-be-determined Democratic challenger — will affect downballot races.

Recent public polling shows Scott as deeply unpopular, with an approval rating in the mid-30 percent range. That’s led to something of a parlor debate in Tallahassee political circles about the potency of Scott’s downticket effect.

“Everyone in the state — congressional, legislative, otherwise — is worried about the potential turnout models that could be influenced by an anti-top-of-the-ticket,” one top Florida Republican operative said.

Some Republicans fear Scott could be a motivating factor for more Democrats to turn out to vote. But others doubt Scott will have an effect.

“Long story short, federal races will be decided on federal issues, not on the governor’s race,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP strategist.

Democrats, too, were split on the potential Scott effect, with some believing an unpopular Scott would swing independents toward Democrats downballot and imbue ennui in a swath of Republicans, who would stay home.

But others, such as Schale, who ran Barack Obama’s Florida campaign in 2008, thought the gubernatorial race was unlikely to swing any congressional elections. “Even if Rick Scott goes into re-election and is wounded and is beaten by a guy like [former Gov.] Charlie Crist and it’s a landslide — it’ll be 3 or 4 points,” Schale said. That would have a limited effect down the ticket, he said.

Redistricting also remains an outstanding issue. An ongoing state lawsuit seeks to throw out or change the current map. If a court decides to do that, Democrats could benefit.

Even under the current map, there are likely to be a few competitive races, though less than the half-dozen Florida seats in play in some recent cycles. The seats held by Republican Reps. Steve Southerland II and C.W. Bill Young are top Democratic targets. The seats held by freshman Democratic Reps. Patrick Murphy and Joe Garcia are top GOP targets.

Schale said he thought Southerland’s seat was one of Democrats’ best pickup opportunities in the state. Southerland survived a Democratic challenge by more than 5 points in 2012. And he holds a district that GOP White House nominee Mitt Romney won comfortably.

But a big-name challenger is considering a run: Democrat Gwen Graham — whose father, Bob Graham, served as both governor and senator in the state — is a very likely contender.

Further south, the perennial Florida political question remains unanswered: Will Young retire? His district voted for Obama in 2012, but it will probably be a steep climb for anyone to unseat the 22-term veteran.

Young, 82, has been a target of Democrats for years, and he’s proved victorious every time. But his district could be the most competitive in the state if there is an open-seat race for it.

Murphy won a close victory in 2012, beating Rep. Allen B. West, a Republican, by fewer than 2,000 votes. That’s led to a slew of GOP names floated as potential challengers. Among them are: state Rep. Gayle B. Harrell, state Sen. Joe Negron and businessman Gary Uber.

The competitive composition of Murphy’s district means Republicans will heavily target the seat, most likely. But Murphy survived having millions of dollars spent against him in a grueling race, so he cannot not be easily discounted.

Garcia in 2012 unseated David Rivera, an embattled GOP incumbent facing ethics allegations. This time, Republicans will have a heavier lift taking out Garcia. GOP names floated include state Rep. José Felix Diaz, Miami-Dade School Board Member Carlos Curbelo and former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Joe A. Martinez.

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