Photo:Democrats face long odds in winning the seats they need to match the GOP in the state Senate. In the House, Democrats may gain a few seats, but Republicans will continue to dominate.
Battleground Florida: Key state races in November 2020
While the airwaves are consumed by the race for the White House — and Florida’s role as a critical swing state — other election drama is unfolding in legislative races around the state. The biggest battles are shaping up in the Senate, where Republicans hold a 23-17 advantage over Democrats.
Democrats hope to flip three seats blue to gain a 20-20 split and force the GOP to share power with them as they engage in redistricting following the 2020 Census. They face long odds — Democrats will have to hold on to the seats they currently have and pick up open seats in Senate District 9 in Central Florida, Senate District 39 in South Florida and — most improbably — the Republican-leaning Senate District 20, where Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk counties meet. Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking to shake things up in the sprawling Big Bend district, where Democratic Sen. Bill Montford is retiring.
Although progressive groups such as Forward Majority and the Sister District Project have targeted what they believe are the most “flippable” seats in the Florida House of Representatives, the GOP has a commanding 73-47 majority in the chamber and isn’t likely to lose it. And while Democrats have fielded far more candidates this year than they have in the past, they haven’t kept pace with fundraising in many districts. In August, Forward Majority reported that Democrats in Florida’s most competitive pickup targets in the state House had raised only 30% as much as their Republican opponents and 20 out of 23 candidates in competitive races had pulled in less than $100,000. Republicans, by comparison, had broken the six-figure mark in all but two of those races.
Money and party battles aside, the most interesting development in Florida politics is the rise of the no party affiliation voter. As of July, there were about 4.9 million registered Republicans and close to 5.2 million registered Democrats in the state — but also 3.6 million NPA voters. Marian Johnson, executive director of the Florida Chamber Political Institute, says NPAs could outnumber Republicans within the next eight years. NPAs already outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in House Districts 103 and 105 in South Florida.
Senate District 9
With Republican Sen. David Simmons term-limited out, Democrats think they’ve got a decent chance to flip this Central Florida seat in November. Voters in the district — which encompasses Seminole County and parts of southwest Volusia County — chose Gov. Ron DeSantis over Democrat Andrew Gillum by just 0.5% of the vote in 2018.
Democrats have pinned their hopes on Patricia Sigman, a labor and employment attorney from Longwood, who emerged as the winner of a crowded Democratic primary. Her top campaign issues are expanding Medicaid, increasing school funding and protecting the environment. She’ll face off against former state Rep. Jason Brodeur, who ran unopposed in the GOP primary. Brodeur, president of the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce, has been focusing his campaign on reopening the economy and fixing Florida’s unemployment system.
Brodeur had the fundraising edge in late August, with about $225,000 in his official campaign committee and another $278,600 in his separate political committee, Friends of Jason Brodeur PC, for a total of nearly $504,000. Sigman had about $52,600 left in her campaign committee after the primary, as well as another $260,700 in her affiliated United for Change committee, giving her roughly $313,300. Jestine Iannotti of Winter Springs, who is running as a no party affiliation candidate, raised $1,300 for her bid, and spent most of it on her qualifying fee to enter the race. The stakes of the race have made it ground zero for dirty tricks in 2020. During the Democratic primary, a “dark money” group calling itself Floridians for Equality and Justice flooded the district with direct mail disparaging Sigman and calling her primary opponent Rick Ashby the “true progressive.”
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the bulk of the group’s advertising budget went to a company called Victory Blue Group, which “despite its Democratic-sounding name is listed as being managed by Republican Tallahassee attorney David P. Healy, a registered Republican who represented members of the GOP-aligned firm behind the Florida redistricting process overturned by the courts in 2014.”
Senate District 39
Two members of the Florida House are battling over this open seat, which spans southwest Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys. Republican incumbent Sen. Anitere Flores can’t seek re-election because of term limits. The GOP is backing state Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez, a senior vice president for the Miami Association of Realtors. Rodriguez served as vice mayor of Doral and two terms on the city council before getting elected to the Legislature in 2018. From 2005 to 2010, she lobbied for Baptist Health South Florida. Democrats, who have a slight registration advantage over Republicans, selected Rep. Javier Fernández, a real estate and land-use attorney and partner with SMGQ Law in Coral Gables. As of late August, Fernández had a slight fundraising lead over Rodriguez, with both raising about $1 million overall. Celso Alfonso, who is running as a no party affiliation candidate, has received no outside donations.
Other Senate Races Worth Watching ...
Senate District 3
This Panhandle district is not traditionally competitive for Republicans, but that hasn’t stopped the state GOP from steering significant resources to Marva Preston, a retired homicide detective who handily defeated her primary opponent. She’ll face attorney and longtime Democratic House Rep. Loranne Ausley in the November general election. The winner will replace Sen. Bill Montford (D), who was term-limited out.
Senate District 20
The race to replace retiring Sen. Tom Lee (R-Thonotosassa) in a November special election is one to watch. Danny Burgess, a former GOP House member from Zephyrhills who served as executive director of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs, appears to have the edge in the Republican-leaning district, which includes parts of Hillsborough, Polk and Pasco counties. By the latest counts, there are 3,190 more registered Republicans than Democrats, but the district is trending purple and could be influenced by the presidential race — that is, if Joe Biden wins, he could carry other Democratic candidates on his coattails. The Democrat in the race is Kathy Lewis, a disability rights advocate and community organizer from Wesley Chapel. She ran against Lee in 2018 and lost by 13,158 votes (7%).
All 120 of Florida’s House seats are up for re-election in November. Republicans hold a 73-47 majority and are unlikely to lose control of the chamber. Some of the more competitive races:
House District 21
In 2018, Democrat Kayser Enneking, a University of Florida physician, came within 1% (1,998 votes) of unseating incumbent Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville). This year, Enneking is challenging state House Rep. Chuck Clemons (R-Newberry), who is seeking a third term in the northcentral district (Perry’s old House seat), which covers Alachua’s Gainesville suburbs and rural Dixie and Gilchrist counties. Clemons, who grew up on a chicken farm in High Springs and is now vice president for advancement at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, is touting his support in the Legislature for a teacher pay raise, protection of the environment and his background as a financial consultant. Enneking has built her campaign platform around expanding Medicaid, reforming the state’s gun laws, combatting climate change and other issues. Neither candidate faced a challenger in the primary. The district, which chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 0.4% in 2016, has 6,893 more registered Democrats than Republicans but also has more than 26,000 voters who are not affiliated with a major party.
House District 26
After beating Evans Smith in the Democratic primary, former state Rep. Patrick Henry is hoping to retake his old House seat, which stretches across Volusia County, encompassing Daytona, DeLand, Orange City and a section of Lake Helen. Henry is a former Daytona Beach city commissioner and former conflict resolution counselor. He served one term in the House, from 2016-18, when Republican Elizabeth Fetterhoff defeated him by 61 votes — triggering a manual re-count. Fetterhoff, a DeLand native, served in the Florida Army National Guard from 2011 to 2014 and currently works as the coalition director for the non-profit One Voice for Volusia. Before that, she was a lobbyist for the New Smyrna Beach Board of Realtors and spent four years handling public and legislative affairs for former Sen. Dorothy Hukill (R). As of late August, Fetterhoff had outraised Henry by almost 3-to-1, but Democrats have an edge in terms of registered voters.
House District 44
Republicans hope Trump voters can help them flip back this seat, which Democratic state Rep. Geraldine “Geri” Thompson won in 2018. The southwest Orange County district encompasses the affluent suburbs of Dr. Phillips, Bay Hill, Windermere and Horizon West, as well as parts of Ocoee and Central Florida’s biggest tourism destinations — Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and the Orange County Convention Center. Once solid GOP turf, it now leans slightly Democrat in terms of voter registration. Thompson, who beat Andy Farrell in her August primary, has a long political resume, serving in the Florida Senate from 2012-16 and representing Florida’s 39th House district from 2006-12. She lost her 2016 bid for the U.S. House of Representatives to Democrat Val Demings, the former Orlando police chief who represents the 10th congressional district, but returned to the Legislature in 2018, when she beat Bobby Olszewski. Thompson is a retired educator who worked in administration at Valencia Community College for 24 years. Republican voters selected Bruno Portigliatti as their candidate. Portigliatti is the president of Florida Christian University (an unaccredited, private school in Orlando) and CEO of Excellence Senior Living, a growing chain of assisted living facilities. Thompson has spent most of the summer focused on the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, calling out Gov. Ron DeSantis for not issuing a statewide mask mandate and criticizing leaders for “recklessness” in reopening schools. On his campaign’s Facebook page, Portigliatti urged voters to vote for him if they’re “looking for opportunities and not socialism” and “support law enforcement” and “not anarchy.”
House District 59
When Republican state Rep. Ross Spano won election to Congress in 2018, Democrat Adam Hattersley flipped this Hillsborough district — which spans Brandon, Riverview and Valrico — from red to blue. Two years later, Hattersley lost the Democratic primary in a race for Spano’s congressional seat, and Andrew Learned is stumping to keep the swing state House district in Democratic hands. A Brandon native, Learned is a veteran Navy officer who was deployed three times to the Middle East. He is now a reserve officer with Special Operations Command Central out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa and owns a GradePower Learning tutoring franchise in Valrico. He’ll face Michael Owen, a Brandon attorney who is also a first-time candidate. Owen has been stumping on a small government, prolife platform and his desire to make infrastructure improvements in the district. Learned says his tutoring business has been shuttered since the COVID-19 crisis and that creating a recovery plan is his top priority. The district chose Trump over Clinton by less than one point in 2016, but the district is trending more toward Democrats in terms of voter registrations.
House District 72
Florida Democrats captured this Sarasota County district in 2018, when Margaret Good won a special election to replace state Rep. Alex Miller. She resigned just a year into her first term in Tallahassee. Now Good is attempting to unseat U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R), and Drake Buckman, a Sarasota personal injury attorney, is trying to keep the swing district in Democratic hands. He’ll face Fiona McFarland, a Navy reserve officer who won a crowded and contentious GOP primary race. McFarland is a newcomer to politics, but her family has deep GOP political connections: Her mother, K.T. McFarland, is a veteran of the Reagan administration who served as President Trump’s first deputy national security adviser under Michael Flynn. McFarland raised about three times as much as Buckman and has a national network of donors.
House District 89
In 2018, James Bonfiglio, the former mayor of Ocean Ridge, came within 32 votes of flipping this historically Republican district blue. Bonfiglio is back again for a rematch against first-term Rep. Mike Caruso (R), a forensic accountant from Delray Beach. The swing district, which runs along much of Palm Beach County’s coastline from Highland Beach to Singer Island, supported Mitt Romney in 2012 but went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Today, it has slightly more registered Republicans than Democrats and a sizable chunk of voters with no party affiliation.
House District 103
Republicans believe they have a good shot at ousting incumbent Rep. Cindy Polo, who flipped this House seat blue two years ago. A stay-at-home mom who handled PR for the Miami Heat and was communications director for the Miami- Dade Expressway Authority, Polo decided to run for office after the Parkland school shooting in 2018 and made gun regulation her top issue. She faces a tough challenge this year from Republican Tom Fabricio, an insurance defense attorney. Fabricio previously served on Miramar’s Planning and Zoning Board, the Broward County Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the Broward County Charter Review Commission. Historically, the seat has leaned Republican, but voters with no party affiliation are now tops in registration, followed by Democrats and then Republicans. The district includes Doral, Medley, Miami Lakes, Hialeah, Hialeah Gardens, Miramar and Palm Springs North.
House District 105
In 2018, Democrat Javier Estevez, then an assistant manager of an American Eagle store, came within 417 of votes of beating Rep. Ana Maria Rodriguez in this district that includes parts of western Miami-Dade, Broward and eastern Collier counties. With Rodriguez now running for Senate, Democrats hope that Maureen Porras, who defeated Estevez in the primary, can flip the seat blue. Porras, who was born in Nicaragua and moved to the United States when she was 7, is an immigration attorney with the non-profit Church World Service. In the general election, she’ll face Republican David Borrero, a Sweetwater city commissioner and a project and estimating coordinator for T&G Constructors. He was also campaign manager for former Rep. Carlos Trujillo during his successful 2016 re-election bid in House District 105. As of July, voters with no party affiliation comprised the largest segment — 34.5% — of registered voters. Republicans and Democrats are about evenly matched, each making up roughly 32% of the electorate, but the GOP holds the money edge. As of mid- August, Borrero had outraised Porras by more than 3-to-1.
House District 115
Rep. Vance Aloupis (R), a Miami attorney and CEO of the Children’s Movement of Florida, won this seat in 2018 by 579 votes (1%). That margin — coupled with the fact that Democrats Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson won the district in 2018 despite losing their respective races for governor and the U.S. Senate — gives Democrats hope they can flip the seat in November. Their candidate is Franccesca Cesti- Browne, who runs a Miami consulting firm that advises non-profits on business strategies and serves as director of finance and operations for Georgetown University’s Institute for Reproductive Health. Her family emigrated from Peru and settled in Miami when she was 8, and she’s lived most of her life in the Miami-Dade district, which includes parts of Pinecrest, South Miami and Palmetto Bay. Aloupis had a solid lead in fundraising, with nearly three times as much cash as Cesti-Browne as of late August. Cesti-Browne received support from out-of-state donors who are supporting Democrats in other states through the Sister District Project, which is targeting potential blue flips in a handful of state legislatures across the country in advance of redistricting. Republicans have a 2,774 voter registration advantage over Democrats in the heavily Hispanic swing district, which voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Other House Races Worth Watching ...
House District 64
Incumbent Republican Rep. Jamie Grant’s abrupt withdrawal from the race in August to become the state’s chief information officer threw an unexpected kink into this Tampa Bay area contest. Democrats think they have an opportunity for a pickup with Jessica Harrington, a seventhgrade civics teacher at Sergeant Paul R. Smith Middle School, where she was named teacher of the year last year. Republicans have chosen Traci Koster, a family law attorney with the Nelson Law Group, as their nominee. Harrington ran for the same seat in 2018, entering the race late and losing by 5,571 votes (7%) in the Republican-leaning district, which stretches through the upscale suburbs of Carrollwood, Citrus Park and Westchase in northwest Hillsborough County through Oldsmar and Safety Harbor in northeast Pinellas. Republicans have a 9,532 lead in voter registrations in the district, but Harrington could benefit from name recognition.
House District 120
With Rep. Holly Raschein (R) termlimited out, Democrats have rallied around Clint Barras to flip the seat blue. Barras has lived in Key West since 1998 and is vice president of business development for a web marketing and design company. He’ll face Republican Jim Mooney, a Keys native and former two-time mayor of Islamorada. Mooney, who squeaked out a win in a nasty, three-way primary, has raised more than three times as much as Barras but had to spend a good bit of that on his primary. The district, which spans all of the Keys and part of southern Miami-Dade, has just about an even split of Democrats and Republicans.
Vote By Mail
More than 2.7 million Floridians voted by mail in the 2016 general election, with Republicans mailing in 58,244 more ballots than Democrats. Republicans also outpaced Democrats by 193,822 absentee ballots in the presidential primaries four years ago. But in the 2020 presidential primary, registered Democrats mailed in 12,150 more ballots than registered Republicans did, posting a 33.5% bump in mail-in voting compared to 2016. Record numbers of mail-in ballots are expected this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Republicans took control of the Florida Senate in 1994 and won a majority of seats in the Florida House two years later. Jeb Bush’s 1998 gubernatorial win gave the GOP a trifecta control of state government — which continues today and was interrupted only briefly in 2010, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist left the Republican Party to become an independent.
Read more in Florida Trend's October issue.
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