Back in 1992, the Clinton/Gore campaign not only realized the importance of Florida in their general election strategy, they also noticed the importance of Orange County. In the closing week of the campaign, Clinton held a rally at Lockhaven Park, just north of downtown, which was attended by thousands. Even though Clinton didn’t win the area, it laid the groundwork for the “I-4 Corridor” becoming a household name.
In 1996, the Clinton campaign continued with the same strategy, making Orlando a target area. This time, Clinton won Florida and was only 516 votes away from winning Orange County. Four years later, Gore would win Orange County by 5,703 votes. In 2004, Kerry would win Orange County by a slim 815 votes. And, in 2008, Obama wold win by a mind-blowing 86,177 votes! As you can see, Orlando has been trending Democratic for the last 20 years.
But that is on the Presidential level. Even on the state level, Orange County is now trending. Jeb Bush won the county three times. Charlie Crist won it as well. But in 2010, Alex Sink won by over 30,000 votes.
There are a number of reasons this trend is happening. First, the DNC has been pumping money and resources for national elections here for 20 years. Second, the demographics in the area have changed, as Steve Schale has pointed out in his most recent blog post. Third, the media hype has made the “I-4 Corridor” feel important. And fourth, white, younger voters are trending Democratic as well, as older Republicans, especially in southwest Orange County, are dying off (a trend similar to what we are seeing in the Cuban electorate in Miami).
Even though the DNC has targeted this area for the last 20 years, as well as the DCCC, the local and state party have been relatively silent when it came to fielding good candidates on the legislative level. With the exception of a few exceptional candidates, most were average or not that great. There was a serious hole in the Orange County plan of attack for legislative races. In fact, during the 2002 election, there were more Libertarian candidates running for State House in Orange County than Democrats.
But that trend seems to be changing.
What used to be a barren wasteland for Democrats, with the exception of a few safe seats, is now heating up to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, battlegrounds for the 2012 legislative races. With the exception of House District 31 and 50, which hit rural parts of Orange County, all other seats in Orange County could either be held by Democrats or Democratic candidate can pressure the state Republicans into targeting once-safe seats.
In addition to Orange County, Seminole County, which has been trending over the years, is also becoming a battleground.
Both of these counties combined had only two Democrats elected to represent them them the Legislature (Buddy Dyer in the Senate and Gary Siplin in the House) after the 2000 election. As of right now, Democrats should win three seats and be competitive in five others. Let’s look at the key races as they stand now.
House District 29 – First, up in the uber-rich part of Seminole County is House District 29. Republican heavyweight Chris Dorworth has decided to run in this district. Of course, being in the Republican House Leadership, he has more than enough financial backing. And with the Longwood, Wekiva Springs and Heathrow neighborhoods, this looks like a safe Republican district. But other areas of the district, which also includes parts of west Sanford, makes the seat more of a tossup.
As of right now, it seems that the Democratic candidate will be Mike Clelland. Clelland is well financed and has the backing of a traditionally important Republican union, the Firefighters. With their support, Clelland might be able to pick off some traditional Republican voters that might find the new GOP a little too right-wing for their liking. Clelland is a successful attorney and also has a good image and good looks. Dorworth will have the hardest challenge of his electoral career.
House District 30 – Over the last few days, Karen Castor Dentel has emerged as the Democratic candidate for the Winter Park-Maitland-Altamonte Springs-Forest City seat, which is District 30. Of course, the name “Castor” is synonymous with the Tampa region. But Castor-Dentel is a different story. And while she might not be in the same geographical location as her mother and sister, you can be assured that she will have the resources of her family’s connections behind her campaign. She already had the backing of the Florida Democratic Party. It will be interesting to see how much money she will raise once the next filing deadline comes around.
Her Republican opponent is current House member Scott Plakon. With his district is being pushed further south, he will find himself against a more moderate electorate. In addition, liberal pockets such as parts of Winter Park and Eatonville, Plakon could actually have an uphill battle, and Castor-Dentel might be in a position of advantage.
House District 47 – This district continues to be the biggest question mark of all of the Central Florida districts. As for the numbers, this district is slightly Democratic, and not the safe Democratic seat that Scott Randolph ran in previously. One must wonder if this is the reason that Randolph is talking about running for Florida Democratic Party Chair, because he might be in an “Edwards in NC, Romney in MA can’t win reelection” battle. This district has become much more conservative, which makes it much harder for an activist candidate like Randolph to win. But as of right now, Randolph is the best candidate for the Democrats and he still has a slight edge.
What is even more interesting in this race is that two strong Republicans will more than likely face off in the primary. Eric Eisnaugle, who has been a rubber stamp for the conservative agenda in Tallahassee will take on former representative and Florida Health Secretary Bob Brooks. While Brooks is conservative, he was less of a rubber stamp than what Eisnaugle has been since he was elected in 2008. Both of these guys (if both happen to run against each other, we need to see how the Senate maps pan out first) could have a bloody battle. This can give whatever Democrat a strong shot to win the general with a Republican candidate limping his way toward the finish line.
House District 49 – Last week, everyone was shocked to see that Joe Saunders was the top fundraising Democrat in the state with over $55,000 raised in the last quarter. One would think that this would shy candidates away from the race. Nope, it just attracted more.
Saunders does have a primary opponent in, Shayan Elahi, which should make for an interesting contest. On the Republican side, Colonial High School track coach Rene Plascencia is running against former UCF student-body President Marco Pena. Both of these names are known around the area, with Saunders and Elahi lacking name recognition among rank-and-file voters, and are mostly known in Democratic and activist circles.
There is one uphill battle that either Democratic candidate might have, and that is facing a Hispanic opponent in the general. While not having as many Hispanics as HD 43 or 48, HD 49 still has its fair share. There is a possibility that another John Quinones situation could arise, and Hispanic votes that would usually vote Democratic could be stripped by the Republicans. Therefore, it is vital early in the primary season for both Saunders and Elahi to connect with the Hispanic community. If they don’t do it now, it could be their downfall.