Twenty years ago, I started my political career in Florida. The first campaign that I worked on was the Tom Harkin for President campaign in Orlando. After Harkin dropped out, I got more involved in local races and secured my first political employment opportunity with Buddy Dyer in his run for State Senate.
Back then, Orange County was a Republican stronghold. Bill McCollum was the unbeatable Congressman from the 8th District. A large amount of State House and Senate seats were Republican. Dan Webster and Tom Feeney were on their way to becoming Speakers of the Florida House. Toni Jennings was on her way to becoming President of the Florida Senate. The County Commission and other positions were mostly held by Republicans. And, eventually, the Mayor of Orlando became a Republican. Orange County looked as if it might become one of America’s conservative strongholds, like Colorado Springs.
But with the influx of new immigrants, from all different races, moving into the area, as well as more liberal whites, younger voters and a stronger GLBT community, Orange County has started to turn the tide and is on the verge of becoming the next great liberal county in Florida. It had already outperformed Miami-Dade County in the 2008 Presidential Election.
South of the border, Osceola County is moving along the same lines. With a large Puerto Rican and Hispaniola population, Osceola is also show voting trends much more like South Florida than the former Central Florida of the 1980s and 1990s.
Even with this change in the electorate, the Republicans still hold a majority of State House and Senate seats in the area. While populations have increased, the numbers of people representing Republican interests in Tallahassee has remained the same. But is that about to change?
Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at the redistricting process, particularly in the State Senate, where is seems one of the biggest questions has to deal with the seats in Central Florida. Looking at both the old plan and the more recent plans that have come out over the last few days, Republicans are doing all they can to keep both David Simmons and Andy Gardiner in the State Senate. But here is the problem…the Senate knows that if they make both Simmons and Gardiner’s districts more compact, they will then be in tight races in which one, or both, could possibly lose. That is why both Senate seat 10 and 16 in the plan that was introduced Saturday had to borrow votes from Brevard and Lake Counties, respectively. If Gardiner’s seat where to be purely in Orange County, he has a good chance of losing.
On the other hand, the Senate can make a pure Seminole County seat. And even though Seminole is trending, it would still be safe for the Republicans. Therefore, Simmons will return to the Senate no matter who draws the districts. Gardiner, though, is a big “if”. Still, his current Senate district does have a lot of Democrats, and he was able to win in a year in which Democrats did well (2008). So he does have the chance to keep his seat. But the fact that the Senate is panicking about keeping both men and cannot do it safely without drawing district that are not compact shows that something is happening in Central Florida.
While the State Senate is a mess, and nobody knows how that will come out, the State House map might give us a glimpse into if the Republicans are truly thinking about ditching Orange County.
Looking at both Orange and Osceola Counties, the new House map hands the Democrats over five house seats. Those are House Districts 43, 45, 46, 48 and 49. House District 47 will more than likely be a Democratic seat as well. While it does include much of the while liberals of Winter Park and Downtown Orlando, it does include more conservative Republicans in the southern part of the district, down by Belle Isle and Conway. Still, some of these areas are trending Democratic as well and if Scott Randolph seeks this seat, he will more than likely win it.
So that is possibly six Democratic seats in the Florida House. But that isn’t the end of it. Both State House seats 44 and 30 are obtainable as well. Both of these used to be strong Republican areas. But now both districts in have a number of minorities that can tip the balance and give the Democrats good showings in both of them. For example, District 30 now includes Eatonville and other African American areas. Was this just oversight by the Republicans in the House, or was this their intention? No matter what it is, the Democrats should be thankful that this map was created.
Not only does this map help Democrats by pure numbers, this map will also knock out a Republican running for the Florida House. And the odd man out looks like Eric Eisnaugle. As of right now, he would be running against Stephen Precourt in House District 44. There are three possible outcomes that could happen. First, we could have the Precourt vs. Eisnaugle primary in the 44th. Second, once the Senate seats are drawn, if there is an open seat that includes southwest Orange County, either Precourt or Eisnaugle could run for it, leaving the House primary unchallenged (I see Precourt seeking the Senate over Eisnaugle, since Precourt would be term-limited next time around). And the third option is that Eisnaugle moves to part of his old district in the new House District 47 and take on Scott Randolph. Either way, Eisnaugle will have a huge fight on his hands, unless the second outcome becomes a reality.
Just looking at this map, Democrats can make large gains in the Orlando Metropolitan area. And while the Congressional maps aren’t as nice as the State House, they do have seats that Democrats can still win. The new 9th Congressional District, which now has a large Hispanic population, should be highly Democratic. But running the wrong candidate in that district could turn the seat over to the Republicans. I, personally, have been and advocate for Representative Darren Soto to run for this seat instead of running for the State Senate seat that we still don’t know will exist. And as far as Alan Grayson, I feel his time has come and gone. As much as I liked him as a fighter, you just can’t twist the words of your opponent and then not apologize once you get caught. That is something the other side does.
Overall, if the local Democratic Parties are up to the challenge, this will be a good next ten years for Central Florida Democrats. We will see how it plays out. Past experience says that we will falter. But Obama’s showing in 2008 does give us “hope”.