Democrats Eye Numerous State House Seats in 2010 Campaign
Democrat Ron Saunders said he doesn’t like to talk about whether his party can regain control of the state House next year, ending what would be 14 years as an often vastly outnumbered minority.
But he is a college football fan. And, Saunders said, “upsets do happen.”
“Hey, nobody thought Utah was going to beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, right?” said the Key West lawmaker. “But it happened. For us to win the House, sure, it’d be an upset. But it could happen.”
The summer dog days are here.
But for Saunders and his Republican counterpart, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, it’s a pressure-packed season of fund-raising, candidate recruiting and cross-state travel.
One of the two is positioned to become House speaker, depending on which party gets a majority in the chamber. Cannon said he’s confident he’ll be wielding the gavel next year.
“You recruit good candidates, raise enough money, and we’ll be okay,” Cannon said. “We’re planning to play offense and defense. We’ll defend our Republican seats, and try to win some Democratic seats to our side.”
Democrats trail Republicans 76-44 in the House, but have gained nine seats over the past three years. Clearly, Saunders would seem to have the tougher job, but insists things are trending his way.
Stemming chiefly from term limits, there are 25 House seats now held by Republicans where no incumbent is running, while Democrats have only three such openings. The disparity, helped along by voter trends, gives Democrats a chance to pick up – perhaps – 18 seats, Saunders said.
Key to Saunders’ math, is even more calculus. In particular, it’s rooted in the performance of Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink in Republican-held districts during her 2006 race against then-Senate President Tom Lee, a Republican.
Across 18 districts, mostly narrowly GOP-leaning and concentrated in Central Florida, Sink gained at least 48 percent of the vote against Lee. Among them, are districts held by Reps. Pat Patterson, R-Eland, Alan Hayes, R-Umatilla, Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, Ralph Poppell, R-Port Orange, Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo, Ed Homan, R-Tampa, and Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.
Saunders is concentrating his attention – and candidate recruitment efforts – in these areas.
“Sink was a not very well known Democratic candidate running against a better-known Republican in these districts leaning Republican,” Saunders said. “The fact that she was able to draw such strong support shows the district numbers are moving in our direction.”
In the Legislature’s last round of redistricting in 2002, Republicans in charge of line-drawing helped build what soon became an unprecedented 85 Republican seats in the 120-member House following elections just two years later. But some of these Republican seats included a scant GOP majority among registered voters, or were merely considered trending Republican.
The voter-registration push within Florida last year by supporters of Democrat Barack Obama chipped away at some of those Republican numbers. And Florida Democrats now have a 750,000-person advantage over Republicans among registered voters statewide.
After a bleak first-quarter of the year, when Republicans out-raised Democrats $3.9 million to $1.2 million, Democrats earlier this month narrowly outstripped GOP cash totals, with party leaders crowing that the lead was a first since 1996.
Cannon, though, is unimpressed by Saunders’ campaign strategy.
The Republican lawmaker pointed out that despite Obama’s big victory in Florida last fall, House Democrats managed to gain only one seat – raising questions about how committed Obama voters may remain in 2010. He also challenged whether the Sink-Lee race had much bearing on how a district may perform later.
“Sink was a strong candidate in that race,” Cannon said. “And if Democrats could only pick up one seat in the Obama tidal wave, how are they going to pick up something like 15 seats in the 2010 cycle?”
For his part, Cannon acknowledged Republicans are not only looking to defend their current House majority, they’re looking to capture seats held by Democratic Reps. Debbie Boyd of Newberry, Adam Fetterman of Port St. Lucie, and Keith Fitzgerald of Sarasota.
“As people move in and out of Florida, certainly Republican registration has changed in some districts, but I don’t think the voting performance of a district necessarily changes,” Cannon said. “We feel we’re going to be ready for 2010, and we’ll do fine.”