(Note: Sorry for the delay. With moving back to Illinois, starting school again, my birthday, actual work and the Democratic convention, there hasn’t been much time to do anything else. Therefore, I am getting a little breather to continue this series. Orange County will be next Monday.)
For years, Seminole County has been considered one of the crowned jewels for the Republican Party of Florida. While Pinellas County has been considered by many as the birthplace of Florida Republicanism, Seminole County can easily be considered one of their safest counties. Election after election, not only did the Republican Party perform well in Seminole County, but many of the big players in Republican politics came from this county. Bill McCollum and Tom Feeney, two of the fathers of 1980s Reagan Republicanism, come from Seminole.
Even with this strong Republican history in the 1980s and 1990s, Seminole County hasn’t always been this way. In the 1978 elections, Democrats performed well throughout the ticket. In fact, many of the elections before the 1980 Reagan Revolution in Seminole County could be described as competitive. Part of the reason for this is that the African-American population in and around Sanford was still a big chunk of the overall electorate. But as the suburbanization of Seminole County exploded, especially around the areas of Oviedo, Lake Mary and Longwood, the black vote in Seminole County became diluted and eventually became less of a factor. In fact, before the recent redistricting, Republicans would include Sanford in a “minority-majority” district or split Sanford into a number of different districts to minimize the impact of the African-American vote. But nowadays, Republicans can include all of Sanford into a Republican district, which they did in both the State Senate and Congressional seat, because the white population surrounding Sanford has exploded over the last 30 years. Therefore, the influence of Sanford in state, federal and even county elections has diminished substantially.
The reason Sanford lost its clout in Seminole County was because of the new migrants coming from the north, particularly from the midwest. These new migrants were middle to upper-middle class families who had a strong tie to the economically conservative values which the Reagan Revolution ushered in. Many of these families moved to Florida because of the relaxed tax laws in the state. These new Seminole County Republicans would eventually become the driving force which would oppose Governor Bob Martinez’s service tax proposal. In fact, Lawton Chiles would win Seminole County against Governor Martinez 53% to 45%, while losing to Jeb Bush 56% to 44% four years later. In many ways, the north Seminole County communities of Lake Mary, Longwood and Heathrow became the precursor to The Villages concept in Lake County, which is a hub of Republican politics today.
Even with this strong Republican tie, Seminole County has gone through some changes over the last ten years. Instead of being the safe Republican County, it is now starting to move closer to the toss up category. President Obama only lost Seminole County by 3% in 2008 as well as Suzanne Kosmas winning Seminole County by 10%. Also, voter registration numbers have given Democrats a small advantage as well. Currently, Democrats make up 34% of the electorate, which is only a 2% increase over the last eight years. Republicans, on the other hand, are currently at 41%, compared to 45% eight years ago. NPAs are only at 22%. Eight years ago, they were 20%, so not much of a change. With this very small increase in NPA voter registration compared to the rest of the Central Florida area shows that Hispanics aren’t as much of a factor in Seminole County as they are in neighboring Orange County. In fact, they only make up about 11% of the population and even less in registered voters.
With the African-American vote being diluted and the small amount of Hispanics, Seminole County Republicans have to deal with the sobering fact that many whites in Seminole County are starting to vote Democratic. For example, in one of the middle class precincts in Lake Mary, Obama won 40% of the vote. In Previous elections, Republicans would push 70% of the vote. But now, it seems as if the swing in votes from Democratic to Republican is larger than the swing in voter registration. This could be attributed to better voter turnout by the local Democrats, but it also can mean that either a small percentage of Republicans are voting Democratic or that NPAs are strongly starting to shift toward the Democrats. No matter the scenario, the Democrats are starting to make this a trending county.
While the trending moves are positive, the Democrats still have an uphill battle. It can be pointed out that Democrats did poorly in 2010 in Seminole County, but they performed poorly almost everywhere. But besides this, it seems that the belief that Seminole is still a strong Republican county makes it harder to recruit candidates. If candidates do put themselves on the line, even if they are quality candidates like current State Senate candidate Leo Cruz or State House candidate Mike Clelland, there is little help from the Florida Democratic Party to push these candidate. It seems as if the state party is still under the impression that Seminole is a lost cause.
This lack of investment in Seminole County doesn’t just make it harder for these candidates to win, but it also makes it harder for local Democrats to recruit candidates for local races. While there are a few qualified Democrats that run for office locally, the Seminole County Republican Party machine, which has large support from the Republican Party of Florida, can outspend candidates that are registered Democrats by a large amount.
The current situation in Seminole County makes it nearly impossible for Democrats to win. Almost the entire problem with Democrats in Seminole County is getting the state party to realize that Seminole can be winnable. The Obama campaign, which ran entirely separately from the local and state party in 2008, performed quite well in Seminole County. Therefore, Democrats can perform well in Seminole. The only issue is if the Florida Democratic Party is ready to make a serious charge in trying to win in Seminole County. If they do, Republicans could be scrambling, leaving them vulnerable in other counties. If they don’t, Seminole County will continue to be another missed opportunity for Democrats.