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Florida is supposed to be the Sunshine State, but the outlook is cloudy for the future of the Congressional delegation there.
A constitutional amendment enacted into law by voters in 2010 prohibits the creation of lines "drawn with the intent to favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent." How courts interpret that language — part of the amendment shorthanded as Fair Districts — may determine the future political makeup of the delegation. And because there is little legal precedent on a law such as this, the outcome is anyone's guess.
"This is really uncharted territory — for both parties," influential Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale said.
A compromise Congressional redistricting map, hashed out between the state's two GOP-controlled legislative chambers, passed the state House last week and is expected to soon pass the Senate. Republicans expect Gov. Rick Scott (R) to sign it into law. But before those lines, which would solidify the strong GOP advantage in the delegation, can be put into effect, they must pass both federal preclearance under the Voting Rights Act and the scrutiny of the state courts.
Democrats are certain to sue over the lines as soon as the map becomes law, arguing that it violates the Fair Districts standards.
"The maps are drawn to Republican advantage and incumbent protection," a Florida Democratic operative familiar with the redistricting process said. "What they have done is basically cement the partisan advantage from their maps 10 years ago in this map."
Republicans counter that they were nonpartisan in their drawing of Congressional lines and followed the law as it was written. They insist they met their primary obligation under the new state constitutional language: to prevent a map that resulted in the diminishment of the opportunity for minority voters to elect candidates of their choice.
Because the crux of Democrats' case will be on the political bent of the lines, they'll be burdened with trying to prove GOP intent, as the law doesn't prohibit gerrymandering, only doing so intentionally.
Democrats will argue that the outcome of the map proves what Republicans intended to do. Depositions and subpoenaed emails are also likely to come into play. Both sides admit, however, that how the judicial branch will weigh all that evidence is a big question mark.
"No one really knows," the Democratic operative said. "I think the Congressional map is a tossup, I think it's 50-50" that the courts will decide in Democrats' favor.
One plugged-in Florida Republican strategist put the chance of Democrats winning in court at "virtually none" because of the steep climb to proving the intention in GOP mapmakers' hearts.
Nonpartisan groups, including the League of Women Voters, are expected to sue over the maps as well.
Whatever the courts' judgment is, it's likely to have nationwide legal reverberations.
"This is the first time a state has employed this kind of criteria," said attorney Jeff Wice, a Democratic redistricting expert. "Because the criteria limits political gerrymandering, it could set up a major court test for how far a legislature can advance partisan interests."
If the courts decide the GOP-drawn maps are legal, Democrats are likely to pick up two to four seats this cycle. Democratic strategists see expanding opportunity for their party over the next decade even under their worst-case scenario: that the GOP lines remain in place.
As GOP Members in Democratic-leaning seats such as Rep. Bill Young (R) retire and as demography in south Florida and the Orlando area shift, with surges in Puerto Rican populations, plugged-in Sunshine State Democrats see a broadening field of districts as pickup opportunities. From 2008 to 2010, Florida's population of Puerto Rican descent grew by more than 100,000 people to 848,000, according to census data.
Schale, who ran Barack Obama's 2008 campaign in the state, flagged the three districts in the Miami area — held by Republican Reps. David Rivera, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — as places ripe for a Democratic takeover during the next 10 years.
"I don't think you can have a county like Miami-Dade, that is voting almost 60 percent for Democrats at the top of the ticket and growing cycle to cycle" with populations friendly to Democrats, Schale said, "voting for three Republicans forever."
The Democratic operative who declined to be named added: "Look, the state's getting younger and it's getting blacker and it's getting browner. Over time, it's always getting better for us."
But GOP strategists in Tallahassee insist there's more to the electoral equation.
"Message matters. Views matter. Campaigns matters," Republican consultant Rick Wilson said.
"Populations change. The things that drive them change," he added. "And the presumption by Democrats that they will always hold 100 percent of the loyalty of the minority community, I think is a flawed proposition."
Republican strategist Ana Navarro, who is deeply familiar with south Florida, acknowledged there were growing pockets of Democratic-leaning voters in parts of the Miami area. But without strong Democratic candidates, she said it didn't matter.
"Part of the problem Democrats have, especially in South Florida, is that they have a very shallow stable, they have a very shallow field of potential contenders," Navarro said. "There's only one Hispanic Democrat state Rep. or state Senator from south Florida."
She added, "The makeups of those [Congressional] seats is increasingly competitive, but where are their people who are going to compete?"
Wilson said Republicans would keep the pressure on Democrats, however populations shift in the Sunshine State in the next decade.
"Yeah, there are going to be seats where it's going to be difficult for any Republican to play," he said. "But we don't cede ground, especially in Florida. We do not give up a lot of turf. We fight for everything."