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Democrats Start Running Serious Candidates in Traditionally Red Congressional Seats

February 20, 2018 - 6:00am
Nancy Soderberg, David Shapiro and Chris Hunter
Nancy Soderberg, David Shapiro and Chris Hunter

Democrats in the Sunshine State have often opted not to offer serious challenges to Republicans representing red districts across Florida. But things have changed this year as several Republican incumbents are actually facing serious challengers. These GOP incumbents are favorites but they’re going to have to work this year to keep their seats.

This goes beyond the three currently held Republican seats getting all the attention. With Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen retiring, there have been reports that the GOP is already writing off her South Florida district. No matter who emerges in the primaries, the Democrats like their chances here. They also have high hopes for Debbie Mucarsel-Powell against Congressman Carlos Curbelo but that was also the case in 2014 and 2016. The Democrats also have two serious candidates looking to topple Congressman Brian Mast though their chances of flipping that seat are far less than in picking up Ros-Lehtinen’s district or taking down Curbelo.

Unlike past years, Democrats are looking to take the fight to incumbent Republicans in the Florida delegation. Most of these Republican incumbents have had little in the way of serious challenges in recent years but 2018 is starting to look a little different.

Take Congressman Vern Buchanan for example. Buchanan might be feeling a little heat after his son James lost in a special election for a Sarasota County state House seat that leans Republican. At the end of December, attorney David Shapiro had already raised more than $250,000 for his campaign. Now Democrats have tried to take Buchanan down, most recently in 2012 when former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald came up short, losing by 7 percent. Buchanan blew out his two most recent Democratic challengers in impressive fashion, winning by almost 20 percent last time out and by 23 percent in 2014. He’ll have the edge in November but, at the very least, Shapiro will put up a fight, making the GOP spend time and money in a district which has been reliably safe in recent election cycles.

Congressman Gus Bilirakis is in a similar position. Former FBI agent and federal prosecutor Chris Hunter is running for the Democratic nomination and he has already shown a knack for getting media attention at the national and local levels. Hunter’s an underdog to be sure but Bilirakis should not count on this year being as easy as recent election cycles where he ran unopposed or blew out Democrats by more than 30 percent every time out.

Buchanan and Bilirakis aren’t alone. Retired Navy officer Phil Ehr raised $80,000 to challenge Congressman Matt Gaetz though the Democrat spent almost $70,000 of it by the end of December. Gaetz is the favorite of course in the conservative Panhandle but Ehr might make some inroads with veterans, no small factor in that area. A host of Democrats is already running against Congressman Neal Dunn in the Big Bend, including Bob Rackleff who served on the Leon County Commission. Congressman Dennis Ross is also facing a field of challengers including businessman Andrew Learned who raised more than $60,000 by the end of last year and businessman James Pilkington who has thrown in more than $36,000 of his own funds. Businessman David Holden brought in more than $40,000 by the end of the year as he looks to upset Congressman Francis Rooney in Southwest Florida. All of these Democrats are underdogs but they’re an upgrade over their party’s usual candidates in these traditionally Republican districts.

Former Congressman Alan Grayson and his wife Dena could also add to the equation. The former congressman is currently running against Congressman Dan Webster in a rematch of their 2010 contest but he could take on Congressman Darren Soto who bested his wife in the 2016 Democratic primary. Still, if Grayson opts for a rematch against Webster, he will rely on his warchest. Of course, Grayson could decide to take on Republican Congressman Bill Posey who is currently being challenged by Dena Grayson. While either of the Graysons would be underdogs if they take on Webster or Posey, they’ll also offer more of a challenge than those Republicans have faced in the recent past.

With Congressman Ron DeSantis running for governor, the Democrats are also targeting his Northeast Florida district. They also have a solid candidate in Nancy Soderberg, a former NSA staffer in the Clinton administration who had brought in almost $545,000 by the end of December. Even though Soderberg didn’t exactly shine when she ran for a state Senate seat, with a competitive Republican primary and a healthy warchest, she can make an impact here even if she’s not the favorite by any means to flip this GOP leaning seat.

The Democrats face long odds in most of these races of course but they will force the GOP to allocate resources in races they usually take for granted. The Republicans have their pick up opportunities of course—namely against Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy—and they do have a few candidates who look like they will spend money against the likes of Democrat incumbents like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Lois Frankel and Frederica Wilson. While he might represent a swing district, for the moment it looks like Congressman Charlie Crist will have an easier time this year than he did in 2016 unless former Congressman David Jolly wants a rematch.

Part of this might come from Democrats being fired up to take on President Donald Trump and the GOP. The Democrats have the wind behind them in Florida as they flipped two state legislative seats in special elections. But there’s more to it than that. The various rounds of redistricting have helped the Democrats. Demographic shifts are also starting to change the Sunshine State and that’s having a political impact.

Murphy’s success is probably the best example of that. She came out of nowhere to upset longtime Congressman John Mica in 2016 thanks, in part, to the growing Hispanic population in Central Florida. It also showed that a Democrat can have success against an established congressional Republican.

That lesson hasn’t been lost on some Democrats. While it’s unlikely that Hunter or or Shapiro or Soderberg or some of the other candidates will repeat Murphy’s success, the Democrats have a far better crop of candidates this time out across Florida to run against Republicans in the Florida delegation than they usually do. If there is a blue wave in November—and that is still a big if at this point—one or two of them might come close on Election Day. 


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