What Florida's New Congressional Map Means for 2016

Jack Fitzpatrick | National Journal | 12/02/2015

Flor­ida fi­nally has a con­gres­sion­al map in place for the 2016 cycle after months of un­cer­tainty and nearly four years of leg­al battles over the old dis­trict lines.

The state Su­preme Court on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon ac­cep­ted a map pro­posed in Oc­to­ber by Cir­cuit Court Judge Terry Lewis that will likely nudge a couple of the state’s House seats in Demo­crats’ fa­vor. The 5-2 rul­ing didn’t sur­prise the state’s polit­ic­al ob­serv­ers, but it offered clar­ity for a spate of law­makers won­der­ing wheth­er they would face a more hos­tile polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment in their new dis­tricts.

Now that the dust has settled, sev­er­al in­cum­bents will face up­hill battles for reelec­tion—un­less they jump in­to a nearby dis­trict more fa­vor­able to their party.

One of the law­makers most af­fected by the new lines is Demo­crat­ic Rep. Gwen Gra­ham, who finds her­self in a dis­trict that Mitt Rom­ney would have won with 65 per­cent of the vote in 2012. The fresh­man was one of two Demo­crats na­tion­wide who de­feated a House Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent in 2014, but she now faces a pivotal de­cision as someone viewed as a fu­ture statewide can­did­ate.

On the Re­pub­lic­an side, Rep. Daniel Web­ster, whose new dis­trict would have been car­ried by Pres­id­ent Obama with 61 per­cent in 2012, has said he’ll con­sider run­ning in the nearby Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing dis­trict be­ing va­cated by re­tir­ing Rep. Richard Nu­gent. Rep. Car­los Cur­belo will have to run in a 53-per­cent Obama dis­trict, while the par­tis­an num­bers on Rep. John Mica’s dis­trict are vir­tu­ally even.

By run­ning for Sen­ate, Rep. Dav­id Jolly es­caped what is now a 55-per­cent Obama dis­trict.

Cur­belo’s Miami-area dis­trict was a ma­jor stick­ing point in the de­bate over a new map. In the sum­mer, Re­pub­lic­ans sub­mit­ted maps that fol­lowed the court’s in­struc­tions to avoid split­ting up the small city of Homestead, but the maps also pulled a cluster of heav­ily Demo­crat­ic, Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munit­ies out of Cur­belo’s dis­trict.

Justice Bar­bara Pari­ente’s opin­ion ac­cuses Re­pub­lic­ans of try­ing to pull a fast one, say­ing “the Le­gis­lature’s pro­posed con­fig­ur­a­tion … was even more fa­vor­able to the Re­pub­lic­an Party than the en­acted dis­trict, which was in­val­id­ated partly for be­ing drawn with the in­tent to fa­vor the Re­pub­lic­an Party.”

The new map will shake up each party’s primar­ies, too. If Web­ster runs in Nu­gent’s dis­trict, he’ll face Justin Gra­belle, Nu­gent’s chief of staff, in the Re­pub­lic­an primary.

Palm Beach-area Demo­crat­ic Reps. Lois Frankel and Ted Deutch will also fall in­to the same dis­trict. The two are friends and have prom­ised not to run against each oth­er, but if either de­cides to run in the open dis­trict in nearby Fort Laud­er­dale, they could face loc­al at­tor­ney Stephanie Toothaker, who has said she’s con­sid­er­ing a bid.

The Deutch and Frankel pair­ing is so in­con­veni­ent for the two that Pari­ente cited it as evid­ence that the new map was not drawn by “Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ives,” as state Re­pub­lic­ans have al­leged.

Pari­ente wrote in the court’s opin­ion that the rul­ing “should bring much-needed fi­nal­ity,” years after the plaintiffs, led by the Flor­ida League of Wo­men Voters, al­leged that the old map vi­ol­ated a state ban on par­tis­an ger­ry­man­der­ing.

The dis­sent echoed com­plaints by Re­pub­lic­ans throughout the law­suit: that the court struck down a Re­pub­lic­an-drawn map, then chose lines that Demo­crats sup­port, thus help­ing the minor­ity party rather than truly over­com­ing par­tis­an­ship.

Pari­ente also con­ceded in her opin­ion that the re­dis­trict­ing pro­cess was messi­er than ex­pec­ted, writ­ing that the justices “did not an­ti­cip­ate … that the Le­gis­lature would be un­able to agree on a fi­nal re­medi­al re­dis­trict­ing plan” after the court dir­ec­ted le­gis­lat­ors in Ju­ly to sub­mit a new map. When the state House and Sen­ate failed to pass the same map, the justices called on Lewis to se­lect one.

Even though the state Su­preme Court’s rul­ing es­sen­tially sets the new map in stone, there is at least one leg­al battle re­main­ing. Demo­crat­ic Rep. Cor­rine Brown filed a fed­er­al law­suit in Au­gust al­leging that the state court vi­ol­ated the Vot­ing Rights Act when it spe­cific­ally dir­ec­ted the court to re­draw her dis­trict.

Brown rep­res­ents a well-known visu­al ex­ample of ger­ry­man­der­ing. Her old dis­trict twis­ted from Jack­son­ville to Gaines­ville to Or­lando, loop­ing in a strong ma­jor­ity of Demo­crats, and a slight ma­jor­ity of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans.

Her new dis­trict, cov­er­ing Jack­son­ville and Tal­l­a­hassee, will still be safe Demo­crat­ic ter­rit­ory and only be a few per­cent­age points short of an Afric­an-Amer­ic­an ma­jor­ity.

But the de­crease in the num­ber of Demo­crats and Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans promp­ted Brown in Oc­to­ber to call the new map “a blatant at­tempt by the plaintiffs and Flor­ida State Su­preme Court to dis­en­fran­chise minor­ity voters” in her dis­trict.

Aside from Brown’s law­suit, one oth­er re­dis­trict­ing battle re­mains. Le­gis­lat­ors in both parties are dis­sat­is­fied with the cur­rent re­dis­trict­ing sys­tem, which out­laws par­tis­an ger­ry­man­der­ing but leaves the pro­cess in the hands of par­tis­an le­gis­lat­ors.

Demo­crat­ic state Rep. Dwight Dud­ley has sponsored a bill that would cre­ate an in­de­pend­ent com­mis­sion, and some Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­lat­ors have tent­at­ively ex­pressed sup­port for the idea.

Re­pub­lic­ans could also put the state’s ban on par­tis­an ger­ry­man­der­ing back on the statewide bal­lot in 2018, us­ing a rare Con­sti­tu­tion Re­vi­sion Com­mis­sion meet­ing in 2017 that will likely be dom­in­ated by the GOP.

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