Florida Democrats lock up 11 legislative seats

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Aerial drone photo of the Florida State Capitol Building and museum. By felixmizioznikov via iStock for WMNF News circa 2023.

By Jim Turner ©2024 The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Eleven candidates, mostly incumbents, won legislative races Friday as they did not draw opponents before a qualifying deadline, while the Florida Democratic Party hit a goal of having candidates vie for every seat up for election.

Two Democrats — former House members Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando and Mack Bernard of West Palm Beach — locked up Senate seats, while nine incumbent House members won additional two-year terms.

Florida Democratic Party Chair Nikki Fried touted the party fielding a candidate in every race, after Republicans have controlled the House and Senate since the 1990s.

“It’s a record-breaking accomplishment for the Florida Democratic Party and a stark contrast to the party we inherited after 2022 — a party Republicans declared ‘dead’ just one year ago,” Fried said in a prepared statement. “Now, we have the momentum.”

Republican Party of Florida Chair Evan Power called the Democrats’ effort a “stunt to get attention.”

“While Nikki Fried and the Democrats are focused on a participation trophy, the Florida GOP is dedicated to winning,” Power said in a text.

In the House, the unopposed Democratic incumbents were Yvonne Hinson of Gainesville, Jervonte Edmonds of West Palm Beach, Kelly Skidmore of Boca Raton, Christine Hunschofsky of Parkland, Dan Daley of Coral Springs, Lisa Dunkley of Sunrise, Hillary Cassel of Dania Beach, Felicia Robinson of Miami Gardens and Dotie Joseph of North Miami.

Smith, who won the Senate District 17 seat held by term-limited Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, served in the House from 2016 to 2022. He lost a re-election bid in 2022 after his district was redrawn.

Bernard, who served in the House from 2009 to 2012 and subsequently served on the Palm Beach County Commission, was the only candidate to qualify in what is technically a special election to replace Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, in Senate District 24. Powell gave up the final two years of his Senate term to run for the Palm Beach County Commission.

Though Democrats fielded candidates throughout the state, numerous races aren’t expected to be competitive, in part because many Republicans are incumbents and the GOP has built a large voter-registration edge. But the strategy for the Democratic Party is to raise awareness for Democrats statewide during a presidential election year and to force Republicans to spread dollars to races.

“We are not going to just let Republicans walk into office without being held accountable,” Danielle Hawk, Florida Democratic Party candidates and campaigns director, said in a statement.

Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican and former chair of the state GOP, described the Democratic effort as “wasting money in safe Republican seats.”

“This isn’t a win,” Ingoglia posted online. “It’s foolishness for a cash strapped party.”

The parties, however, will square off in places such as Senate District 3 in North Florida. Sen. Corey Simon, a former Florida State University and National Football League standout, will face the winner of a Democratic primary between Daryl Parks and Kimblin Nesmith.

Parks, a prominent civil rights attorney, has quickly piled up money for the race in the sprawling district, which includes Tallahassee.

As another example of a competitive district, Republicans want to unseat Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg, in Pinellas County’s House District 60. She faces a challenge from Republican Ed Montanari, a St. Petersburg City Council member.

Meanwhile, attention has been raised over a potential “ghost” candidate in House District 106 in Miami-Dade County.

Former Democratic Rep. Joe Saunders is trying to unseat Rep. Fabian Basabe, R-Miami Beach. But St. Johns County resident Maureen Saunders Scott qualified to run for the seat without party affiliation under the name Moe Saunders.

After the 2020 elections, Republican political operatives faced allegations that they used third-party “ghost” candidates in South Central and Central Florida to “confuse voters and siphon votes” by having similar names on the ballot or by running nearly identical ads to Democrats.

Other hard-fought races will come in party primaries in places such as Northeast Florida’s Senate District 7, which is open because Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, faces term limits.

House Appropriations Chair Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, has drawn support in the Senate race from big-name Republicans including Gov. Ron DeSantis. But he faces two primary opponents, including former longtime St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar. The district is made up of St. Johns, Putnam, Flagler and part of Volusia counties.

Meanwhile, former Democratic Congress member Alan Grayson has qualified to run in Central Florida’s Senate District 25, which is open because Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, faces term limits. The Democratic primary also includes Carmen Torres, who is married to Victor Torres, and Rep. Kristen Arrington, D-Kissimmee. The district includes Osceola County and part of Orange County.

Also in Central Florida, Randolph Bracy, a former Democratic lawmaker, has qualified to run against Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, in Orange County’s Senate District 15.

In the House, term-limited Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Indialantic, will battle in the Republican primary in Brevard County’s House District 32 against former Congressman Dave Weldon.

In Miami-Dade County’s House District 109, former Democratic Rep. James Bush has returned for a primary rematch against Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami. Gantt defeated Bush by 3.4 percentage points in the 2022 Democratic primary. The race also includes former Democratic Rep. Roy Hardemon.

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