Republicans Maintain Stronghold in the Sunshine State

November 16, 2018

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Florida’s legislative session begins March 5, 2019. Below is an early look at some dynamics expected among Florida’s legislators and governor-elect, and the issues that are sure to drive constituent interest and committee hearing debates. Stay tuned for more information as the session date approaches.

Florida concluded its midterm election with what some in the political world believe are surprising results. Despite consistent public polling indicating strength for Democratic statewide and legislative candidates, an unexpectedly strong election day turnout for Republicans resulted in the narrow defeat of three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson by Gov. Rick Scott (recount pending), a narrow victory for former state Rep. Ron DeSantis for governor, and comfortable victories for Republican state CFO Jimmy Patronis and the Republican candidate for attorney general, Ashley Moody. The lone bright spot for Democrats was the election (recount pending) of Democrat Nikki Fried to the post of state Agriculture and Consumer Services commissioner by less than 5,000 votes — defeating state Rep. Matt Caldwell. 


Republicans have controlled the executive branch for 20 years, a run that began with Jeb Bush’s victory in November 1998. The election of Ron DeSantis carries enormous implications for the future of the state on healthcare policy, taxes, education, regulatory reform and economic development, as DeSantis has repeatedly campaigned on maintaining most of the reforms and pro-business positions championed by Gov. Rick Scott. The day Ron DeSantis is sworn in as governor, he will have three immediate appointments to the Florida Supreme Court, due to mandatory retirements of three liberal justices, creating the Florida Supreme Court’s first “conservative majority” in recent history. DeSantis’ running mate, Jeanette Nunez, is a current state House member with many connections in Tallahassee and likely will be heavily involved with the transition.  

House and Senate Balance of Power

State legislative chambers remained mostly unchanged, with a few potential net changes to both the House and Senate. The House, previously with 75 Republicans, lost a net two seats. It now stands at 73 Republicans and 47 Democrats. Two Democratic freshman were defeated, two open seats were captured by Democrats, and two Republican incumbents were defeated in the I-4 corridor. In the Senate, all incumbents on the ballot were victorious, with the possible exception of state Sen. Dana Young (R-Tampa). She and House Minority Leader Janet Cruz fought a tough battle that is currently undergoing a recount, as around 400 votes separate them and around 4,500 ballots remain outstanding. If Sen. Young is defeated, the Republicans will hold 23 seats to the Democrats’ 17. 

These results are important, not only for the next two years, but in setting up pivotal elections in 2020, which will decide who redraws legislative and congressional districts. The 2018 results make it extremely difficult for Democrats to capture either chamber in 2020, and the addition of three Republican court appointees makes it more likely that Republicans will have more favorable districts approved for the next decade by a less-hostile state Supreme Court. 

Constitutional Amendments

Twelve out of 13 ballot amendment proposals passed, including Amendment 4, which restores voting rights to most felons (excluding those who committed murder or sexual offenses), and Amendment 13, which phases out greyhound racing by 2020. In the past, legislative efforts to decouple greyhound racing from casino gambling have repeatedly failed.

Of the 13 proposals on the ballot, three originated in the legislature, two were citizen-initiated proposals, and the Constitutional Revision Commission (CRC) referred the other seven, some of which combined multiple proposals in one question. The CRC is a statewide appointed group that meets every 20 years to propose amendments to the state constitution. In total, the CRC referred eight proposals, but a judge struck one from the ballot in August.

Florida’s Congressional Districts

The Florida delegation has changed significantly over the last eight years. In 2010, Republicans enjoyed a 19-6 partisan advantage over Democrats when Republicans recaptured control of the U.S. House. Today, that advantage has decreased to 14-13 (with two seats added in 2012). The League of Women Voters (LWV) successfully challenged state Senate and congressional redistricting maps in 2014 and ultimately overturned them in 2015, with the adopted LWV redistricting changes creating a friendly map for Democrats. That, coupled with demographic changes in large counties has made it difficult for Republicans to hold onto seats. 

Such was the case in Dade County this cycle as two seats flipped from red to blue. Congressman Carlos Curbelo is a moderate Republican from Miami who narrowly lost to Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, and Democrat Donna Shalala picked up the open seat formerly held by 29-year Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. In other notable races, congressman Al Lawson, who represents a district stretching from Tallahassee to Jacksonville handily defeated former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, and Republican state Rep. Ross Spano defeated Democrat Kristen Carlson in a closely watched race to succeed retiring Republican Dennis Ross. Looking forward, Florida likely will add at least two new congressional seats in 2020, thus setting up a giant redistricting battle in two years. 

Future of Florida Politics

Florida is an ever-changing state, with a continuing influx of retirees; a growing population of immigrants from Puerto Rico, Columbia and Venezuela; and a political climate Democrats continue to believe they can turn from purple to blue. This dynamic state’s regional changes seem to offset political advantages for both parties. Back in 2000, when Florida was considered the nation’s largest “swing state,” Orange County was 50-50, and many of the state’s rural and suburban areas trended slightly Republican. 

Today, the urban centers of Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough and Orange provide the Democrats with large-margin victories in statewide races. However, counties across the state that used to lean slightly red have now turned into bright-red Republican machines, churning out electoral results of 2-1, 3-1 and even 4-1 Republican advantages that wipe out the Democrat advantages enjoyed in densely populated areas. In 2000, Volusia County was a major presidential battleground, with Al Gore winning the county by 10,000 votes. On Election Day 2018, it gave Ron DeSantis a 25,000-vote margin of victory. 

Small and medium-sized counties are now the bedrock of Republican support. Large counties now go deep blue. Florida remains the country’s largest swing state, but trending slightly more red than blue (for now). Election year 2018 brought national headwinds against Republicans. Despite those headwinds, Republicans maintained complete control, even while running against a well-funded, young, charismatic candidate for governor who significantly increased turnout of the Democratic base. The future likely holds more of the same — a competitive purple state that gives Republicans a slight advantage, but also a state Democrats can win under the right circumstances.

Rick Scott’s Florida

Twelve years ago, it was Jeb Bush’s Florida. Today, after eight years in office and likely winning a U.S. Senate seat, Rick Scott is the most recognized politico in the state. The former hospital executive, a conservative activist who initially ran a campaign against “Obamacare,” has left a lasting impression on the state — and its politics. Conventional wisdom never suggested Rick Scott could win in 2010, nor win re-election against Charlie Crist in 2014, and certainly not against Bill Nelson in 2018. But Rick Scott defied conventional wisdom every time, running disciplined, well-funded campaigns on an economic message of lowering taxes, regulations and creating jobs. Bill Nelson has been virtually unbeatable for 40 years, escaping several tough races against Republicans in 1994, 1998, 2000 and 2012. But if the margins stand in the recount, Nelson will fall to Rick Scott. Rick Scott’s 2018 campaign boosted turnout in key counties with lower-propensity Republican voters, which may have boosted other statewide Republican candidates in this election. 

What does this mean?

Election results yield much of the same center-right policies with some differences in the executive branch, with new agency heads, a more conservative approach to regulation, and a different approach to environmental regulation that emphasizes solving the state’s algae problems and red tide. Congressman DeSantis’ positions on issues are in some instances more conservative than those held by Gov. Scott. His strongest supporter in the legislature is incoming Speaker Jose Oliva (R-Miami), who takes a principled, philosophically conservative approach to governing. Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Sarasota) is a more pragmatic conservative who skillfully balances the will of a far more difficult and independent-minded chamber. 

The relationship between the governor and the legislature will be mostly friendly, with very little risk of paying more taxes and enduring costlier regulations. However, sacred cows, such as the state’s tax code and myriad of exemptions, could always be on the table for review. State economic development programs may not be as highly funded, as DeSantis and Oliva have expressed skepticism that incentives are a proper way to “create jobs.” 

Healthcare will be more of the same, with Medicaid expansion on the backburner and territorial fights between payers and providers, and environmental/transportation spending may increase to address voter concerns over water and infrastructure. The Cabinet member with the most institutional knowledge will be state CFO Jimmy Patronis, a Rick Scott appointee who easily won his first statewide election after serving eight years in the legislature and several years as a regulator on the Public Service Commission. He and Governor-elect DeSantis will have to jointly appoint banking and insurance regulators, and will have influence over the policies promulgated by these offices.

Former Judge Ashley Moody’s election to attorney general is one to watch as well. Judge Moody was handily elected over Sean Shaw in a race where she demonstrated deep knowledge of complex legal issues and had the strong support of law enforcement. As a judge, she had a solid reputation of running a fair and efficient court. She had strong appeal with independent voters, which may in turn mean she sometimes breaks with Republicans on issues related to court access and goes hard after corporations who break the law. 


The organizational session for the new legislature begins Nov. 20, and legislative committee hearings will begin the second week of December. On Jan. 8, the governor-elect and Cabinet members will be inaugurated. 

Bills can be filed and committees likely will begin to hear legislation by the third week in January and continue into February until the 60-day session begins March 5.