While Bill Clinton carried the state in the 1996 Presidential Election we saw absolutely no coattail effect. The Democrats failed to pick up a single Congressional seat in the state and lost four seats in the State House giving the Republicans their first majority since Reconstruction. Additionally, the State Senate fell deeper into Republican hands with the flipping of one seat giving the GOP a 23-17 majority.
Throughout the country, Democrats under-performed as Bill Clinton’s Campaign Finance scandal broke just weeks before the election allowing the Republicans to avert an almost certain loss of control of US House and actually gain two seats in the US Senate. For the record, I initially supported Republican investigative efforts to hold Bill Clinton and his political advisers accountable for his potentially illegal and improper fundraising in the 1996 election. However, in time the GOP completely botched the investigation by trying to make it a political witch-hunt rather than to probe the illegality of the Clinton team’s actions, and they proved their unfitness to govern during the course of the next two years of constant petty investigations. I am pleased that our current Democratic President, Barack Obama has restored an integrity and dignity to the office that our last Democratic President stripped, while pursuing the progressive policy agenda that Clinton largely ignored after his first few months in office. Had Darrell Issa been in office during the Clinton scandals he could have mounted endless investigations which almost undoubtedly would have yielded gains for the GOP, but our current President has not given the GOP anything substantive to attack him with despite the efforts of Issa, FOX News, Newsmax and other right wing media outlets.
Returning to the discussion of the Florida Legislature, the Democrats entered the 1992 cycle with 75 members of the House, a 30 seat majority and left the 2002 cycle with 39 members, a 42 seat minority. The 1996 Legislative Session represented the last time the Democrats had a majority in either chamber. While the new legislative maps give the Democrats a distinct opportunity to capture the House (but not the Senate) in the near future, it is difficult to not be sentimental about the last session the Dems were in control of the chamber, especially given the ineptitude of the Florida Democratic Party in its attempts to contest winnable seats throughout the state.
Let’s look at how the Democrats lost each seat that they held in 1996 and do not hold now.
House District 3 (Will be similar to HD-2 post 2012)
This urban Pensacola district will not even see a Democratic candidate in 2012. Buzz Ritchie the Democratic Speaker designee represented this district and after retiring in 1998 was succeeded by his ex-wife Dee Dee Ritchie whose decision to run for the Senate in 2000 left the seat as an easy GOP pickup, one they have held ever since. This seat could be recaptured with the right candidate but the Democrats have not even bothered to try.
House District 5 (Will be split between HD-4 and HD-5 post 2012)
This sprawling rural district that ran from Crestview through Bonifay and Chipley was held for the Democrats by Durell (Doc) Peaden in an open seat election in 1994 and barely hung on in 1996 against Republican Don Brown. Peaden switched parties in June 1997 and went on to serve in the Senate. The Democrats haven’t been close to re-winning this seat since with Brown winning in 2000. The Democrats have stopped even contesting legislative elections in this area.
House District 11 (Will be similar to HD-10 post 2012)
This rural Big Bend district was actually held by the Democrats until two years ago against great odds. Now held by Elizabeth Porter. This is a seat the Democrats are unlikely to ever win back.
House District 12 (Will be similar to HD-11 post 2012)
Nassau County has gone from having twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans in 1990 to twice as many registered Republicans as Democrats in 2012. George Crady, a conservative Democrat who last voted for a Democratic speaker in 1992 (but was a fine member with a great deal of integrity) was term limited in 2000 and the GOP has held the seat without much trouble since.
House District 20 (St Augustine based but also included Flagler County, not entirely similar to any post 2012 district)
Tracy Upchurch retired in 1996 and was succeeded in a close election by Doug Wiles who was one of the best Democratic members until term limits forced him out in 2004. The Democrats lost this seat overwhelmingly that year and haven’t been close to regaining it since.
House District 21 (similar to new HD-19)
Conservative Democrat Kelly Smith was term limited in 2000, and Republican Joe Pickens (who the Democrats attempted to recruit to run) won this Palatka based seat. This district has not been seriously contested since.
House District 31 (similar to new HD-53)
Harry Goode switched parties in late 1997 and the Democrats have not come close to winning this seat back since. However, this district remains a reasonable Democratic target as demographic shifts in southern Brevard County.
House District 38 (Split in 2012 between House District 31 & 45; Apopka area)
Democrat Bob Sindler ran for the Orange County Commission in 1998 and the party did not even field a candidate to try and hold the seat. However, in 2000 Democrat Jerry Girley nearly recaptured the seat and with the explosive growth in Orange County, the GOP has essentially conceded the majority of area that comprised District 38 by placing it in the new District 45 where no Republican is running, allowing current Rep. Bryan Nelson to move into a Lake County oriented seat to the north (new HD-31) . Randolph Bracy will return this area to Democratic representation in November, having won last week’s primary.
House District 42 (similar to no post 2012 districts. Explosive local growth means this seat has been split many ways)
Lake County Democrat Everett Kelly switched parties in the Summer of 1997 and the Democrats have been nowhere near winning this seat since.
House District 43 (Will be similar to HD-34 post 2012)
Democratic Representative Helen Spivey was defeated by Nancy Argenziano in one of the nastiest races in 1996. The Democrats have not seriously contested this seat since. This was one of the four seats that flipped in 1996 to give the Republicans a 61-59 majority.
House District 51 (Central Pinellas County – Similar to new HD-67)
The seat that was held by Mary Brennen at the time has flipped back and forth between the parities since the early 1980s and is currently held by Republican Ed Homan. Ben Farrell is the 2012 Democratic nominee here.
House District 52 (St Petersburg- Similar to new HD-68)
Peter Rudy Wallace, the last Democratic Speaker of the House vacated this seat in 1996, and the Democrats held it thanks to Margo Fischer. She was defeated two years later by Republican Frank Farkas, who survived several close elections. In 2006, when Farkas was term limited Bill Heller took this seat, but it has now flipped back to the GOP thanks to Jeff Brandes. With Brandes now headed to the Senate, Farkas is running again but faces a strong Democrat in Dwight Dudley.
House District 56 (Similar to new HD-59)
House Majority Leader Jim Davis was elected to Congress in 1996 and was succeeded in this Tampa area seat by Sandy Murman who ran as a Democrat. Murman switched parties immediately after the 1997 Legislative Session and the Democrats have not come close to recapturing this seat since.
House District 63 (Similar to new HD-39)
Lakeland based seat lost in 1996 by the Democrats when Dean Saunders abruptly retired and 21 year-old Republican Adam Putnam won the seat. Has not been seriously contested since.
House District 64 (Similar to new HD-40)
Lakeland based seat lost in 1996 when Democrat Joe Tedder ran for Polk County office and Republican Paula Dockery won. Has not been seriously contested since.
House District 65 (Similar to new HD-41)
Lake Wales based seat held by Democrat Lori Edwards who was term-limited in 2000. The Republicans won it that year and have had little trouble holding it since.
House District 69 (Similar to new HD-72)
Democrat Shirley Brown held this Sarasota based seat until 2000 when the GOP barely won it. The seat flipped back in 2006 thanks to Keith Fitzgerald but was captured for the Republicans again in 2010 by Ray Pilon.
House District 72 (Similar to new HD-75)
One of the great disappointments of Election Night 1996 was Vernon Peeples defeat in this Port Charlotte area district to Republican Lindsay Harrington. The Democrats have not come close to recapturing this seat since.
House District 73
Fort Myers based seat that fell into Republican hands by the slightest of margins when Democrat Keith Arnold ran for statewide office in 1998., This like most southwest Florida seats this has not been seriously contested since.
House District 77 (Similar to new HD-55)
Joe Spratt held this Heartland seat for the Democrats when Bert Harris retired in 1996. Spratt switched parties in 1999 and the seat has not been seriously contested since.
House District 79 (Similar to new HD-42)
Bud Bronson’s party switch in December 1999 came as no surprise. Bronson whose father sold the land to Walt Disney that became Florida’s leading attraction had been voting with the GOP for years. But when the seat was open in both 2000 and 2008, the Democrats came close to winning. In 2000, Donna Hart lost by less than 200 votes to Frank Attkinson. In 2008 Mike Horner beat an underfunded Democrat by a small margin and has held the seat since.
Former House Districts 90, 116 & 119
These districts in southeast Florida were eliminated in the partisan 2002 redistricting and replaced by Republican districts that elected Republicans since.
Filed under: Florida Political History