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Democrats Betting Big on Florida Redistricting

New Fair Districts Law Will Prevent Major GOP Gerrymander, but Huge Gains Are Not Likely

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. David Rivera is vulnerable because he is under investigation for "financial improprieties."

Florida is a state where, as millions of Disney World-bound children know, dreams come true.

But for national Democrats who hope a new redistricting law will help them pick up five or six House seats — and boost their prospects for winning back the House — the Sunshine State reality won’t be so warm.

At the end of 2010, Democrats had a voter registration advantage of 592,000 in the state, which voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Yet they only hold six of the 25 House seats in the Congressional delegation.

Democrats hope a new voter-approved Fair Districts amendment to the state constitution, which prohibits legislators from drawing Congressional lines “with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent,” will put the wind at their backs for 2012 races.

“Our path to 25 seats flows straight through Florida,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) said last week.

But with Republicans in control of both chambers of the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion, a map that substantially improves Democrats’ representation in Congress is unlikely.

While discussions of the lines are closely held and the election is still a year away, GOP and Democratic strategists in the state currently expect the range of Democratic pickups to be two to four. Given the current climate there, the lower end of that range appears more reasonable. Some currently solid GOP districts will definitely be more vulnerable after a redraw, but few will become veritable tossups.

Florida Republican consultants expect the mapmakers to be careful not to overreach. Passing a strongly partisan map that could end up scuttled — and even redrawn — by a court, would be akin to a game of Russian roulette for the state GOP.

Still, it remains unclear what exactly would constitute an overreach under the new guidelines, which also require districts to be compact and respectful of existing geographic boundaries “where feasible.”

Sunshine State strategists believe that because the new regulation prohibits “intent” in drawing a district for a partisan or incumbent-protection reason, the inevitable outcome will be extended litigation. People who like the map will insist mapmakers’ intent followed the law, opponents will cry foul, then a judge will decide.

Lawsuits filed against the Fair Districts amendment for Congressional lines have, so far, been unsuccessful. An appeal is pending in 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, where oral arguments are expected in early January. National Democrats are confident that the new regulations will stand.

The Legislature appears likely to pass maps early in its 2012 session, which begins in January, to leave time for any judicial challenges before the June filing deadline. In the redraw, they’ll be adding two new districts allotted to the state by reapportionment.

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