The 2020 elections: State and local races could influence Florida’s future for the next decade

Florida Capitol, Colin Hackley

For all the storm and stress attending the presidential election in Florida, other ballot races will also prove decisive to the future of the state — particularly for state House and Senate members who will redraw legislative district boundaries next year.

That redrawing of those districts in line with the 2020 U.S. Census — and congressional districts, too — will shape Florida’s political landscape for the next decade. There’s also the matter of electing members who represent Florida in all its diversity.

That’s very much on the mind of political activists on both ends of the spectrum as the campaign season nears its endpoint on Tuesday.

For example, Dwight Bullard, political director for the New Florida Majority, a former state legislator, is leading some 200 activists in a get-out-the-vote effort targeting disadvantaged Black and Hispanic communities in 19 Florida counties. The effort perhaps extends to 400, given help from similar groups.

One of their top priorities is as local as politics get: The campaign for mayor of Miami-Dade County between Esteban Bovo Jr., backed by the GOP, and Daniella Levine Cava, running with Democratic support.

Dwight Bullard is political director of the New Florida Majority. He’s shown in an undated Florida House photo.

People are identifying “how that mayoral race works in conjunction with the federal races,” Bullard said. In fact, Cava walked precincts in tandem with Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell — who is running for reelection for Congressional District 26 against Republican Miami- Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez — to highlight that connection. (Recording star Common tagged along.)

In other words: “They’re understanding the impact of politics in their everyday lives at the hyperlocal level,” Bullard said.

As of Monday, Republicans had cast more than 3.4 million votes by mail or early in-person votes compared to 3.5 million Democrats, 1.9 million “no party affiliation” or NPA voters, and nearly 125,000 voters registered with “other” parties, according to Florida Division of Elections data.

Republicans were nursing 424,785 unreturned vote-by-mail ballots compared to 572,785 for Democrats, 335,580 for NPAs, and 21,416.

Chasing votes

Against that backdrop, Democratic Party workers are chasing remaining mail-in votes via text message and phone calls, according to Rosy Gonzalez Speers, who coordinates its down-ballot races. They are running ads via digital platforms including social media that focus on voting the entire ballot, highlighting the environment, public safety, and health care.

Engagement rates, defined as clicks, for Facebook ads have been running at around 15 percent in her races, which compares to around 18 percent for the top of the ticket, Joe Biden, Speers said.

Other venues include YouTube, Google, Instagram, and SnapChat.

“The number of people who are seeing our ads are in the hundreds of thousands,” she said.

The top issue with voters is public safety, Speers said — even slightly above health care.

“They’re neck-and-neck, and its only within the past two weeks that public safety bumped health care,” she said. “It’s because right now the Republicans are really leaning into that negative message” — that Biden and down-ballot Democrats in the Black Lives Matter era want to defund the police (which Biden has expressly repudiated).

The party is running an “historic” number of candidates this year, including more than 400 for city and county positions.

The party hasn’t been emphasizing the Republicans’ installation of Amy Coney Barrett on the U.S. Supreme Court but the episode has energized Democratic voters. Since her confirmation, “we are seeing an increase in voters who are engaged around the health-care debate,” Speer said.

But, again, the issue was already important in a state where COVID has cost many jobs and with them access to health insurance.

Persuasion time is over, so the party hasn’t been reaching out to Republicans unhappy with President Trump. However, that’s been an element of some down-ballot candidates. One of them is Jessica Harrington, a 7th-grade teacher running in House District 64, against Republican Traci Koster, a family law attorney.

“She from the very beginning of her campaign has been writing personal post cards to white women who are registered at Republicans in her district,” Speers said. The seat represents northern Tampa Bay area and leans to the GOP. “She’s really been able to make some inroads there.

The Republican Party of Florida did not respond to an interview request, but William Large, president of the conservative Florida Justice Reform Institute, who is active in GOP politics, pointed to campaigns he views as worth watching.

Last Republican in Broward

Chip LaMarca. Credit: Florida House

In House District 93, Republican incumbent Chip LaMarca is defending against Democrat Linda Thompson Gonzalez. “It’s the last Republican stronghold in Broward County,” Large said. “That’s going to be a close race.”

Large also expects the race for state House District 26, between incumbent Republican Elizabeth Fetterhoff and Democrat Patrick Henry, to be close. The district stretches from Daytona Beach to Deland.

He’s watching House District 44, southwest of Orlando, where Republican Bruno Portigliatti is trying to oust Democratic incumbent Geraldine Thompson, who’d flipped the seat against Bobby Olszewski of the GOP two years ago.

In House District 50, GOP incumbent Rene Plasencia, who’s organized a tight political network, is defending against Democrat Nina Yoakum, Large said.

Electing Patricia Sigman, a Democrat running against House Republican Jason Brodeur in Senate District 9, is a top priority for Ruth’s List, which backs Democratic women candidates, according to interim CEO Barbara Zdravecky.

The district includes parts of Seminole County, which has been trending purple, in part because of an influx of Puerto Rican voters, and Volusia. Brodeur has caught some flak over his support for a proposed development in a rural area being pushed by a friend and political ally, as the Orlando Sentinel has reported. Equality Florida has labeled Brodeur an “anti-LGBT extremist.”

The race has been marked by injections of dark money, including an effort to throw Sigman’s primary to a weaker Democrat.

“I think that’s really the biggest race in the state as far as Ruth’s List is concerned, because we are three seats away from getting more power in the Senate and this is one we feel really good about,” Zdravecky said.

The organization backs Maureen Porras, an immigration lawyer, running in House District 105 against Republican David Borrero. The district covers Collier and Miami-Dade counties and small bites of Hendry County.

The incumbent in that district, Republican Ana Maria Rodriguez, is running in Senate District 39 against House Democrat Javier Fernandez. District 105 contains a population of Cuban- and Venezuelan-Americans who tend to favor Trump.

State Rep. Margaret Good
Credit: Sarasota County Democratic Party

The AFL-CIO of Florida is active in the race for Congressional District 16 in the southern Tampa Bay region, pitting Margaret Good against incumbent Republican Vern Buchanan, legislative and policy director Rich Templin said.

The union also is active in Congressional District 26 in far South Florida, where Mucarsel-Powell is defending against Carlos Giménez.

In the Senate District 9 race, the union backs Sigman over Brodeur, Templin said.

“If you put a list together of the worst attacks on either labor or working families in general during his time, either his name is on the bill or he voted for the bill.”