Can Democrats win these Florida congressional seats?

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candidate for Congress
Nancy Soderburg, candidate for Congress

Donald Trump’s stunning election immediately galvanized Democrats in Florida, resulting in a surge in grass roots energy that still feels tangible a year and a half after he took office.

If the much hyped “blue wave” does materialize this fall, it certainly could include several congressional seats in the Sunshine State moving from red to blue, but how many? National groups are focusing primarily on flipping seats in South Florida, but there are Democrats in other parts of the state who think they have a legitimate chance to gain seats in what have historically been Republican strongholds. With just two weeks until the August 28 primary, we look at three of those races where the nominee has yet to be selected.

Nancy Soderberg vs. John Upchurch and Steve Sevigny in Congressional District 6

Among those who have no doubt that there will be a serious blue wave this fall is Nancy Soderberg, who served on Bill Clinton’s National Security Council and later as the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

“You can feel it. You can honestly feel the momentum,” she said last week.

Soderberg moved from Jacksonville to Crescent Beach last year to announce her challenge to the-then incumbent Ron DeSantis, who then decided to vacate the seat and run for governor.

Soderberg says that a woman wielding serious national security credentials is an automatic door-opener as she campaigns through the district, which encompasses southern St. Johns County, northwestern Lake County and all of Flagler and Volusia counties.

Like so many Democrats running for Congress this year, Soderberg says the number-one issue she hears from the voters is their concern about health care, with the economy a close second.

“Women have a reputation that has been earned for common sense solutions and because I listen –  and if you listen to people and get past the sort of rhetoric that you hear on TV –  their concerns are exactly what we’ve been talking about,” she says, referring to her desire to bring both parties together to maintain support for Social Security, Medicare and improving health care.

Ormond Beach attorney and small businessman John Upchurch says from Corrine Brown to DeSantis, the district has only been represented by people who have wanted to use the seat as a “stepping stone or monetizing it for themselves,” and he says it desperately needs a representative who will put the people of the district first and foremost.

Upchurch is critical of national Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, saying that they haven’t been loud enough in protesting against Trump administration policies. He says he wouldn’t support Pelosi’s bid to remain Democratic House leader if he’s elected.

Upchurch says he supports a Medicare-for-all concept, specifically mentioning the bill sponsored by Bernie Sanders. But he also acknowledges that such legislation would inevitably be vetoed by Trump.

Upchurch and the third Democrat in the race, Ormond Beach radiologist Stephen Sevigny, say they are passionate when it comes to the issue of health care, since they both have children who have needed quality care since they were born.

In Upchurch’s case, his son was born with congenital glaucoma. He says that if he did not have insurance, his son likely would have been blind for his whole life.

In the case of Sevigny, his daughter was born with a rare syndrome and is disabled with special needs. He says the “final straw” for him – and what compelled him to get into the race – was when he watched Congressional Republicans delay reauthorization of the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Sevigny adds that the skyrocketing costs associated with pharmaceuticals isn’t a “red or blue issue. That’s a green issue -” meaning money.

Soderberg leads the field in fundraising with nearly $1 million cash-in-hand at the end of July, and a recent poll had her up big over her Democratic opponents.

The winner will face the Republican nominee: either Michael Waltz, Fred Costello or George Ward.

Andrew Learned vs. Kristen Carlson in Congressional District 15

Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross has represented this area (parts of eastern Hillsborough County,  northwest Polk and southern Lake County) for eight years.

Central Florida-area Democrats hoping for some confirmation that they could take this seat received a bit of inspiration last month when the political tipsheet Cook Political Report re-ranked the race from “likely Republican” to “leaning Republican.”

Cook Political Report still predicts a Republican will hold this seat this fall, but the small shift has given hope to Democratic candidates like Andrew Learned.

Progressive groups have rallied around 32-year-old Learned, a U.S. Navy veteran who served three deployments in the Middle East. His chief rival in the contest, Kristen Carlson, is a 64-year-old former Department of Citrus general counsel.

It’s a district that went for Donald Trump by more than nine points in 2016, yet Learned invokes the name of Pennsylvania Democrat Connor Lamb as an example of what he’s capable of doing this year. Like Learned, Lamb is a veteran (in his case from the Marines) and his victory in a March Pennsylvania special congressional election electrified the political world because Trump won that congressional district by 20 points in 2016.

Learned’s road to potential victory isn’t as formidable as Lamb’s, but he first has to defeat Carlson, whose late entry into the race has seemingly changed the trajectory in the contest, and alienated progressives who have gone as far as to call Carlson “a Republican plant.”

Financial records show that Carlson has given to Republicans in the past, including Adam Putnam, Greg Steube, Charles Bronson, and earlier this year, Jennifer Spath, who ran and lost in a Republican special election Florida House primary.

Carlson says that the reality is that it’s a Republican-leaning seat, and if she’s elected she’ll be representing all the people from the district, regardless of their political stripe.

When asked the number-one difference between himself and Carlson, Learned said “authenticity.”

“When we were fighting to get assault weapons out of our schools, she was giving money to Republicans, and now that it’s an open seat all of a sudden she wants to jump in the race and claim the mantle of –  I don’t know – ‘Republican Lite?’” Learned charges.

If Learned’s criticism of Carlson’s past political donations are supposed to put her on the defensive, it’s not working.

Carlson does admit that running for the seat wasn’t something she was thinking about at all until friends and some local political consultants urged her to consider it in the wake of Ross’ announcement that he wouldn’t run for a fifth term. She also received assistance in hiring a campaign team from EMILY’s List, the Washington, D.C. based political committee created to help elect pro-choice Democratic women to office. EMILY’s List promptly endorsed her once she filed for the seat.

“This is a can’t-miss opportunity to help an outstanding candidate flip an open seat, and Kristen has what it takes to win this fight,” EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock said in a statement.

On health care, Learned is all in on a Medicare-for-all style system.

Carlson says that growing up as an “Air Force brat” introduced her to what she says is “a good mirror image of a one-payer system,” but says while it sounds good on paper, “I don’t know if the country is ready to make that leap.” She does say she might support dropping the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 55.

Carlson is relatively moderate in most of her other stances. When asked about whether she supports Nancy Pelosi remaining in charge of House Democrats after the election, Carlson says she would not.

Learned boasts about the number of small dollar contributions he’s received, and compares that to what he says is an average contribution of $768 for his opponent. “We have ten times more individual donations than every Republican and Democrat in this race, combined,” he said.

According to campaign records at the end of June, Carlson has raised nearly $250,000 in the race, which includes a $50,000 loan to herself. Learned has raised more than $221,000.

The third Democrat in the race is Ray Pena. According to the most recent campaign finance reports, he is more than $7,000 in the hole.

Brandon Peters vs. Bob Rackleff in Congressional District 2

Congressional District 2 is the largest congressional district in the state by land area and contains nine counties and parts of five others, stretching along the state’s west coastline from the Ocala area to the Panhandle west of Panama City. It’s a district Trump won by 25 points.

The seat is currently occupied by Republican Neil Dunn, who votes with President Trump 99% of the time, according to the political website 538.com.

The district has 18 percent more Republicans registered than Democrats, and is one of the state’s toughest for a Democrat to win, says candidate Rackleff.

Then why even try?

“I couldn’t deal with Neil Dunn getting re-elected without serious competition,” Rackleff said last week, quipping: “That’s what Florida Democrats do. We just give away seats.”

Rackleff insists that he never really wanted to run. He’s had a sterling career that includes speechwriting efforts for Jimmy Carter, Ed Muskie and most recently former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, but says he’s most proud of his 12-year stint as a Leon County Commissioner. But he said after his attempt to recruit a Democrat in the race was unsuccessful, he decided to run for the seat himself. That means the 74-year-old Rackleff is making regular three-hour drives from his Tallahassee home to different parts of the district in his Chevy Tahoe.

He’s up against against 50-year-old Brandon Peters, a Princeton graduate and civil litigation mediator who hails from Levy County and is making his first run for political office.

Peters’ campaign team vehemently disagrees with the Cook Political Report’s analysis of the district, contending the difference is only around five to seven points in favor of Republicans – and which they believe they can close if they end up as the candidate opposing Dunn in the general election.

On the issues, Peters’ most provocative stance (though perhaps not necessarily out of touch with the district) is his support for giving President Trump the billions of dollars to build a wall along the Mexican border in order to get a deal on DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program introduced by President Obama that shields certain undocumented immigrants from deportation if they came to the U.S. as children. Both the U.S. House and Senate failed to pass legislation that would have made DACA permanent this year.

“What I’m saying is, DACA is that important,” Peters says.

That thinking could win him some votes among conservative Democrats in the district, though he concedes that “many experts say it’s not going to work.”

When told Peters’ reasoning for supporting a wall, Rackleff looks befuddled for a moment.

“Why spend $25 billion on a stupid wall that won’t solve a thing?” he asked incredulously. “Sorry, that’s not compromise. That’s a surrender.”

On health care, both candidates support a version of Medicare For All.  Peters contends that Rackleff didn’t initially support that concept saying he’s glad “Bob has gotten religion” on this issue. When informed of that comment, Rackleff shakes his head, saying he has no idea how Peters got that idea. “It’s inevitable that we go to a single-payer health care system,” he declares.

In fact, Rackleff says if he can pull off a mighty upset it will be because of that issue alone – health care.

“Anything else we say is noise,” he declares, criticizing Dunn and the rest of the Republican Party as being determined to take away people’s health care. “That’s what they’ve always wanted to do.”

When it comes to endorsements, Peters is leading the way, having received backing from a slew of labor organizations, including the Florida Education Association, the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Labor Caucus.

At the end of June, Rackleff led in fundraising with $137,163 to Peters’ $108,330.

 

Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

1 COMMENT

  1. District 2 does have a larger than average land mass. It appears we did not get the memo on redistricting. Anyway, I wonder how many independents in our district will be barred from voting in the primary, and how many Ds and Rs will sit it out.

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