A Look at Florida

Posted July 25, 2003 at 6:06pm

Editor’s note: This is the first of two columns on the Sunshine State.

While Florida has rightfully earned the distinction of being ground zero in the 2004 presidential election following the recount debacle of 2000, it will also be a major battlefield for next year’s Congressional races. [IMGCAP(1)]

The current uncertainty surrounding the Sunshine State’s Senate race has had a domino effect in creating a number of unknown and hypothetical scenarios when it comes to potential open-seat House races. There is also one retirement already announced within the delegation and at least two other possibilities over the short-term horizon.

So far, a total of seven sitting House Members have said they are running or thinking about running for the seat of Sen. Bob Graham (D). Graham is currently running for president, and Florida law appears to bar the three-term Senator from seeking both offices simultaneously next year if he becomes the party’s nominee. Graham has not completely shut the door on running for another term, but in the meantime he has encouraged Democratic candidates to prepare their campaigns.

If Graham is out of the Senate race entirely, the trickle-down effect from the open-seat contest would have the greatest impact on Rep. Allen Boyd’s (D) swing 2nd district seat. President Bush won the rural, socially conservative Panhandle district with 53 percent in the 2000 contest, and any race to succeed the Blue Dog Boyd is guaranteed to be competitive.

The district is becoming more conservative, according to Jack Hebert, a Florida Republican operative. Planned communities are edging out agriculture and the timber industry, and as “you start having more retired business people moving in from the North” the district will turn Republican red, according to Hebert.

Republicans see an ace in state Rep. Bev Kilmer (R), who is running for the seat regardless of whether Boyd seeks re-election or opts into the Senate race. Congressional Republicans are touting Kilmer, who outraised Boyd in the second quarter of the year, as one of their top challengers this cycle.

If Boyd does leave, Democratic state Sen. Al Lawson is considered all but in the race. Other names mentioned include state Rep. Curtis Richardson and businessman Cliff Thomas, who lost a 2002 House race to Kilmer.

State Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox was mentioned for the seat, but he has said he is not interested. Maddox is seen as having statewide ambitions and could possibly run for governor in 2006 when Gov. Jeb Bush’s (R) term expires.

At least one Member in the delegation also has his sights set on the governor’s mansion in 2006.

Rep. Jim Davis (D) is widely expected to depart his Tampa-based 11th district for a gubernatorial bid in three years. Among the Democrats interested in replacing Davis are state Rep. Bob Henriquez and state Sen. Les Miller.

The effects of term limits in the state Legislature is clearly evident in the list of aspirants eyeing the Senate race. Two rising stars in the Republican Party, state Sen. Dan Webster, a former House speaker, and current House Speaker Johnnie Byrd both appear likely to run if Graham is out.

Adam Goodman, a Republican operative, said the Florida landscape also changed radically when the runoff system was done away with in 2002. Candidates now only need a plurality, not a majority, so winning candidates with niche appeal are becoming a common phenomenon, he said.

The lack of a runoff will likely play a key role in what could be a crowded race for retiring Rep. Porter Goss’ (R) heavily Republican 14th district seat.

Potential GOP candidates include state Sen. Burt Saunders, state Rep. Dudley Goodlette, state Rep. Carole Green and three Lee County Commissioners — John Albion, Andy Coy and Ray Judah.

While the 13th isn’t in danger of turning over, some political observers predict the state could see some fallout — in the form of GOP losses in the state Legislature — from a contentious 2003 legislative session.

Hebert, the Republican operative, said his party is in danger of falling to the same infighting that toppled the Democrats from their statewide dominance in the early 1990s. After last cycle’s GOP-controlled redistricting, 18 of the state’s 25 House seats are now held by Republicans. Before the 1990 election, the Congressional delegation was 10 Democrats and nine Republicans.

“I don’t see the future for Republicans very bright unless some major changes can be made, the infighting stops,” he said, calling the legislative session, bogged down in a fight with the governor over medical malpractice suits, “one of the most acerbic legislature sessions in the 25 years I’ve been here.”

He’s predicting Republican losses in 2004 as a result.

One Democratic operative eagerly concurred that the session “created a very serious possible rift within the Republican Party” but downplayed its importance come 2004.

On the Congressional level, marginal districts like GOP Reps. Ginny Brown-Waite’s 5th district, John Mica’s 7th district and Ric Keller’s 8th district could be the test for Democrats next year if the party is able to recruit top tier challengers. The Republican performance was improved in all three of the districts in redistricting, and President Bush would have won 54 percent in each.

Brown-Waite, a freshman, is considered most vulnerable of the three after knocking off five-term incumbent Karen Thurman (D) last cycle. Thurman doesn’t appear interested in a rematch, but she has not fully closed the door, according to knowledgeable sources.

Democrats could also look to target freshman Rep. Katherine Harris (R), who surprised many political observers with her disappointing 55 percent to 45 percent winning margin in 2002. Former television reporter Candice Brown-McElyea, who placed third in a four-way Democratic primary in 2002, could run again. Jan Schneider (D) who won the primary but eventually lost to Harris, is also considering another bid.

But the greatest opportunity for Democrats could be a potential open-seat race in the 10th district. Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R) has held the seat for 17 terms, although it voted for Al Gore in 2000 and slightly favors Democrats. Young’s tenure as chairman expires at the end of this Congress, and there is some speculation he may stay and take the helm of the Defense subcommittee. But if he chooses to retire, a competitive battle to replace him will unfold.

Former state Rep. Lars Hefner (D) would likely run in an open-seat race. Former state House Speaker Peter Rudy Wallace (D) is also mentioned. On the Republican side, former state Sen. Jack Latvala is a likely candidate in an open seat race. Former state Sen. Don Sullivan and state Sen. Dennis Jones, as well as Byrd, the House speaker, are also possible GOP candidates.

Another open-seat opportunity may present itself in the neighboring 9th district. Rep. Mike Bilirakis (R) is currently in his 11th term and in 1999 said he didn’t intend to stay in Congress much longer. If he does retire, look for some possible maneuvering to position his son, state Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R), for the seat.