With Congressional Borders In Flux Candidates Search For A Seat

Jul 24, 2015

Florida's congressional redo is turning into a statewide game of musical chairs.
Credit David Maddison via Flickr

In about two weeks state lawmakers will gather in Tallahassee to redraw Florida’s congressional borders.  And the scope of those changes is turning races across the state into a game of musical chairs.

The Florida Supreme Court’s order to redraw 8 districts has thrown a wrench into political plans all over the state, and it’s led to some new faces to jumping into the fray, some familiar faces mulling a return, and some incumbents going all in for a new gig. 

One of those new faces is Mary Thomas. 

“I am a conservative Republican, a Christian, a wife, a mother and an attorney,” Thomas says, by way of introduction.  “And if I’m elected, I will actually represent that values, beliefs and interests of this district.”

“I feel that the people in this district have resoundingly told me that they want a fresh conservative voice in Congress,” Thomas says.

She currently serves as general counsel for the state’s elder affairs agency and she’s running on the Republican ticket in District 2.  That could be good news for the first-time candidate, because the district’s constituency seems likely to become more Republican once its borders are redrawn. 

Of course, that could also be bad news if former Rep. Steve Southerland jumps into the race.  The two-term Republican lost in a very close 2014 contest against Democrat Gwen Graham.  He’s reportedly thinking about trying again, but Thomas says she has his blessing.

“I spoke to Congressman Southerland a few weeks ago and he was very supportive of my campaign, and encouraged me to run,” Thomas says.

Another new face is Eric Lynn, he’s running as a Democrat in District 13.

“We are going to work hard in this campaign to make sure that the people of Pinellas know my policy views on national security and on economic security,” Lynn says.  “And as I mentioned before, protecting seniors and social security, as well as social issues—standing up for women’s health and equal pay.”

But the former Pentagon official could face a tough race for the nomination—former Governor Charlie Crist is considering a run. 

So, just like Thomas, Lynn could spend his rookie political season fighting an established politician for his party’s nomination.  Lynn’s already raised a substantial amount of money, but a recent poll based on likely changes to the map shows Crist way ahead of any Democratic challenger.  Despite losing in his past two outings, Crist is a known commodity, and it will be difficult for Lynn to match that kind of name recognition.

“Well, look, it’s not surprising that someone who’s run for multiple offices from multiple parties has higher name recognition than someone who’s been serving at the Pentagon advising three secretaries of defense,” Lynn says.  “But this race isn’t about whose name is known by most people, it’s about who will fight for the people of Pinellas, and who will work harder in this race.  And I know that I will work harder than any candidate.”

Meanwhile a vacuum has opened up on the Republican side of the district.  There are murmurs former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker may jump in, but otherwise? 

Crickets. 

So why isn’t there a viable Republican presence?   Unlike District 2, District 13 is expected to swing hard to the left, and incumbent Rep. David Jolly is diving into the Senate Race. 

“I have committed my heart to service in the house,” Jolly says.  “The Florida state Supreme Court has decided that perhaps the best place for me to continue to serve is in the United States Senate.”

And Jolly won’t be alone.

There are already seven candidates running for Florida’s open Senate seat.  In addition to Jolly, the Republican side features Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, and Todd Wilcox, a defense contractor.  On the Democratic side, U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson are running along with Richard Dembinsky, a former write-in candidate for state office. 

That’s how WFSU’s news team and a handful of volunteers found themselves playing musical chairs Thursday afternoon.  Usually seven people would mean six seats, but with only two major party nominations to go around, we tried it out with seven candidates snaking between two chairs—one marked Democrat and the other Republican.  The results weren’t surprising. 

Redistricting isn’t responsible for sending all of these candidates into the race, but Jolly—the presumed frontrunner for his party—admits it was a factor.  And while the redistricting conversation focuses on problems with Florida’s map, Jolly says districts like his aren’t the issue. 

“Consider that you have 300-plus districts in the United States House of Representatives that are supermajority one party or another,” Jolly begins.  “That means those members wake up thinking about their party—not their community.”

“The district that I currently represent is one of the fairest in the country,” he continues, “it’s fifty-fifty, or if you include independents it’s a third-a third-a third,  Meaning every day I have to wake up thinking about my community—not my party.”

But while taken alone Jolly’s district may be fair, it isn’t an island.  The Supreme Court ruled the evenness in District 13 came from splitting a community to make conservative voices more consequential. 

Although Jolly may be right, and District 13 will now lean heavily toward Democrats, well over half of Florida’s congressional delegation—29 seats in the House and Senate—are held by Republicans.  This coming from a state that, for the past fifteen years, has been almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans in presidential elections.