With Safe Districts Gone, Two Florida Lawmakers Taking Their Time on 2016 Decision
In Florida, where a court imposed a new map in December, two lawmakers who had their safe seats swept out from under them have yet to announce their electoral plans ahead of a June 24 filing deadline.
In contrast, it took only about a month for Virginia Republican Rep. J. Randy Forbes to announce this week that he would switch districts after a court in January imposed a new map that skewed his 4th District in favor of Democrats.
“It is a little weird,” Florida-based Democratic consultant and pollster Steve Vancore said of the waiting game being played by Reps. Gwen Graham, a Democrat, and Daniel Webster, a Republican.
Although Democrats lost ground in districts such as Graham’s, they made it up in ones like Webster’s 10th District. There, they expect smooth sailing in the mainly urban district that includes Orlando. Webster won a third term in 2014 with 62 percent of the vote, but his seat is now rated Safe Democrat by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call.
Already, former Orlando Police Chief Val Demings is leading two other Democrats in the race – State Sen. Geraldine Thompson and former Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe – by 20 points, according to an early internal poll. Republicans in Florida and Washington admit it is not likely to draw their attention.
With such a vigorous effort underway by Sunshine State Democrats, Webster is considering another district to call home – or an unplanned retirement. One of the most obvious places would be the state’s new Safe Republican 11th District, which took on a chunk of Webster’s. Its current occupant, Republican Rep. Rich Nugent, said he will retire at the end of his term.
But in that district, what at a minimum would amount to some awkwardness – or at most be a hurdle – already exists. Nugent’s chief of staff, Justin Grabelle, began his own campaign the day his boss announced he would not run again, and has already raised more than $110,000 .
Webster was the only federal lawmaker who appeared to testify against the new map, an unusual showing for a man Vancore said is viewed as an “elder statesman” in Florida politics from both parties. What is next for him is anyone’s guess, he added. “Webster’s always played it very close to the vest.”
On the other side of the aisle, Graham, a first-term Democrat, is experiencing the same problem as Webster.
The new 2nd District, made up of a swath of the Florida Panhandle, was a tough place for her even before the new map (she won with 50 percent of the vote in 2014) was drawn in a way that favors Republicans . The contest has already attracted two first-time candidates, Republicans Neal Dunn and Mary Thomas, and is unlikely to produce a Democratic victor in November.
But unlike Webster, Graham does not have a simple fallback option. When the court reviewed Florida’s map, Rep. Corrine Brown’s 5th District failed to meet a compactness test used to mitigate gerrymandering. To fix it during redistricting, they pulled a good chunk of Graham’s turf. So far, it looks as though Brown will stay put.
Graham has made clear she would not challenge Brown, and added in a recent interview with the Tallahassee Democrat : “I’m not naive. I recognize how tough District 2 would be,” referring to her own.
Her best option could be to sit out a couple of years. A prominent attorney and daughter of former Gov. Bob Graham, she has made no secret of her statewide ambitions.
A Florida Democratic official said Graham is considering a run for governor in 2018, while Vancore said she might also be looking at running for the seat held by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson that year if he decides not to run. Under that scenario, Nelson would announce next year he would not seek re-election, giving Graham ample time to be well positioned for that seat.
“She still has 11 months in that seat. It’s not like she’s gone from Congress until 2017,” Vancore said, before what could be a two-year campaign.
Contact Yokley at EliYokley@RollCall.com and on Twitter @EYokley .
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