Both Parties Target Florida State Senate Races
The numbers powering Republican control of the Florida Senate haven’t budged in seven years, with the GOP holding 26 seats to the Democratic Party’s 14.
But after next year’s elections, both parties predict the math will change. Yet that’s where agreement ends.
“I think we have some really good opportunities,” said incoming Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston. “We’re looking at three or four opportunities for picking up seats.”
But Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, shrugs off Rich’s claim.
“We think we can not only support our members, we think we can take back a seat or two,” said Haridopolos, in line to be Senate president if his party retains its majority next year.
Voters will decide at least 23 Senate seats in fall 2010. Even-numbered Senate districts are up for grabs, along with three seats added to the ballot when incumbents who wouldn't have been up this year announced plans to run for other offices.
Democratic hopes are buoyed because seven Republican senators are leaving through term limits, compared with only one from the minority party.
But Democratic Sens. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Dave Aronberg of Greenacres, who wouldn't have faced re-election until 2012, are candidates for attorney general. Sen. Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg, who would have had to run re-election in 2010, won't be because he is running for Congress. Rich will now be forced to defend those three seats.
Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, is the only Republican incumbent exiting early, making a run for chief financial officer.
Senate Democrats two years ago raised and spent $5 million in campaigns but came away with no new seats. And despite a surge in Democratic voting strength that helped President Barack Obama carry Florida and unseat two incumbent Republican congressmen, only one state House seat shifted to the Democratic fold in down-ballot races.
This time around, though, Rich says Democrats are targeting the Gainesville-area seat of Sen. Steve Oehlrich, R-Cross City, formerly held by Democratic Sen. Rod Smith, the seat held by term-limited Republican Sen. Victor Crist in Tampa, and the Palm Beach-Broward county seat held by Atwater.
But even with such ambitions, Rich acknowledged that candidates are still being sought for many of the Senate Democratic contests.
“Obama didn’t have coattails last time,” conceded Rich, who said she hopes to raise close to $6 million for next year’s contests. “But we think we’re going to have an excellent slate of statewide candidates, with Alex Sink running for governor and Kendrick Meek for Senate. There’s going to be excitement and diversity that will bring people out.”
Already in political fast-forward, Rich said part of her sales pitch to contributors and prospective candidates is that if Sink is elected governor, a stronger Democratic presence is needed in the Senate to assure that vetoes will not be overridden.
Republicans, though, feel that if they could withstand the Obama wave and maintain their legislative dominance, 2010 will prove no problem.
The Justice seat, where former state Sen. Jack Latvala is looking to return to Tallahassee, is considered the Republican Party’s strongest chance for a pickup. Latvala left the Senate in 2002 after serving eight years. Nina Hayden, who last fall was elected to the Pinellas County School Board, is the Democratic contender, but faces running against a well-known name in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats by almost 7,000 voters.
Republicans also think they can capture the Aronberg seat that stretches across South Florida from West Palm Beach to Fort Myers. Democrats Pete Burkert, an attorney, and Rep. Kevin Rader of Boca Raton are running in the Democratic-leaning district. But the Republican contest between Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Wellington councilwoman, and former Rep. Sharon Merchant of Palm Beach Gardens, is sharply dividing that party.
Benacquisto has picked up endorsements from eight Republican senators so far – including Haridopolos and Atwater. But Merchant counters with support from nine GOP senators, led by Sens. Paula Dockery of Lakeland and Alex Villalobos of Miami.
A similar intra-party feud is coursing through the Tampa-area, where two well-known Republicans are looking to keep Crist’s seat in the party’s column. Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman has drawn Haridopolos’ blessing over rival Republican Rep. Kevin Ambler of Tampa, while Rich said Democrats are still hunting for a strong contender.
“Getting the right candidate on the ballot is important for us,” Haridopolos said. “Because of the economy, we may not have the resources we’ve had in the past. But I’m a big believer in getting candidates to do grassroots, door-to-door campaigning.”