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Key Florida Legislative Races To Watch In 2020

Florida Public Employees Partnership.

The August primary ballot is set in scores of races for the Florida Legislature, as Republicans look to hold their majorities in both chambers and Democrats try to gain ground in this unique political season.

A total of 141 of 160 legislative seats are up for grabs this year, and when the candidate qualifying deadline arrived at noon last Friday, challengers filed for office in nearly every seat. That's a highly unusual development compared to past years. Statewide, one Republican incumbent, Rep. Brad Drake of Walton County, won a new term, as did 10 House Democrats. In every other seat across the state, voters will have a choice this fall, in most cases between the two major parties. Representative Evan Jenne, a Democrat from Dania Beach, explains the surge in enthusiasm in one word: Trump.

"Donald Trump has an amazing effect — I will give the President that much," Jenne said. "He is the motivating factor behind both parties this year. A lot of people are just kind of fed up with what they see in Washington and they're fed up with what they see out of Tallahassee."

Republicans hold a 73 to 46 advantage in the House, with one seat vacant. The Senate is a lot closer with 23 Republicans and 17 Democrats. Two competitive Senate races are along the I-4 corridor in Orange and Seminole counties, and in Miami-Dade and the Keys, where Republican incumbents are leaving due to term limits. But Republicans like their chances. State Senator Joe Gruters of Sarasota is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

"We're going on the offensive," said state GOP chairman Joe Gruters. "I think 2020 is going to be a phenomenal year for Republicans. I think there's a chance we can pick up one or two state Senate seats and I think there's a chance we could pick up over five state House seats."

Republicans hope to compete in the Big Bend's Senate District 3, a sprawling 10-county district where they recruited an African-American candidate, Marva Preston of Crawfordville, a community fund-raiser, to run against Democratic Rep. Loranne Ausley.

"I think having an African-American female in that district is really going to play well," Gruters said. "Her style will play very well in that district."

There will be at least nine new senators by November, and at least 32 new House members. Yet another new twist is the number of open primaries — eleven — in which only one party, usually the Democrats, fielded candidates, and there is no "write-in" candidate. In an open primary, all voters can vote regardless of party affiliation.

This is a presidential election year, so voter turnout will be higher. As usual, Republicans have more money than Democrats, and Jenne says Democratic candidates can't depend on their party to provide money.

"Look, until we take back control of the Capitol or one of the chambers, we will not receive the lion's share of the money," Jenne said. "If you're an incumbent you need to get out there and raise money. You have all the advantages in the world."

The Florida political scene is further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced elections officials, candidates, and parties to greatly ramp up their emphasis on voting by mail to avoid crowds at the polls.

The ballot will be complete Wednesday when the deadline arrives for candidates to replace Senator Tom Lee, a Tampa-area Republican who's resigning with two years left in his term. The primary is August 18 and the general election is November 3.

Steve Bousquet has covered state government and politics for three decades at the Sun Sentinel, Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. He was the Times' Tallahassee bureau chief from 2005 to 2018 and has also covered city and county politics in Broward County. He has a master's degree in U.S. history from Florida State.