Legislative races to watch in South Florida

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With Floridians heading to the polls Tuesday, there’s little debate over whether Republicans will hold their commanding edge in the Legislature. But the size of their majority could be significant, as they look to hold onto veto-proof margins in both chambers.

There are a handful of seats in South Florida that could help decide which way the chambers go. Here is a look at five of them.

In a district that includes Fort Pierce and areas to the south, Democrat Larry Lee Jr. and Republican Michelle Miller are squaring off in a battle of insurance agents. Both had raised substantial amounts of money for the contest, though Lee had outraised Miller as off the last reporting date, with the Democrat taking in almost $170,000 to Miller’s nearly $94,000.
The district appears to slightly favor Democrats. Alex Sink carried it by about 4.5 points in her 2010 bid for governor, while President Barack Obama won the district by more than 12 points in 2008. Democrats accounted for almost 45 percent of the registered voters in the district in 2010, the most recent numbers available.

Former Democratic House Speaker Tom Gustafson launched a comeback bid against Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, after the original Democratic nominee dropped out. The district stretches from the northeastern part of Riviera Beach down into parts of Boca Raton. The late start put Gustafson behind in the money race; Hager has raked in almost $262,000 so far to Gustafson’s nearly $97,000. Republicans held a slender voter-registration edge in the district, with 37.4 percent of voters identifying with the GOP as of 2010 and almost 35.8 percent siding with Democrats. Republican Gov. Rick Scott carried District 89 by 2 percentage points in 2010, but Obama won it by almost 4.7 points in 2008 and will be on the ticket again Tuesday.

Democrats have high hopes for Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Cuban-American attorney and political neophyte running in a district that includes Key Biscayne and parts of Miami and Coral Gables. But he faces Republican Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a former lawmaker and brother of Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. As of the last reporting period, Rodriguez had actually raised more than his opponent, bringing in almost $177,000 in contributions against Diaz de la Portilla’s nearly $108,000. Republican’s registration advantage in 2010 was small — a little less than four percentage points. Scott and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain both carried the district, but both also did so by less than half a percentage point.

Republicans are making a bid to take over a seat currently held by House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, who left the House to launch an unsuccessful bid for the Senate. Their candidate is Holly Raschein, a Saunders aide who was kept on after Saunders replaced the late Rep. Ken Sorensen, a Republican. She faces Ian Whitney, an openly gay Democrat who serves as president of the Key West Innkeepers Association. The district is centered on the Florida Keys, but includes the rest of Monroe County and parts of southern Miami-Dade County.
Both candidates have raised substantial amounts of money, though Raschein has pulled in almost $242,000 compared to nearly $105,000 for Whitney. Democrats had a slight registration edge in the district — 38 percent of voters to 34.7 for Republicans — but McCain carried the district in 2008 by more than 6 percent points. Sink narrowly won it by 2 points in 2010.

While most of the attention on South Florida Senate races has focused on the Senate District 34 race between Republican Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff and Democratic Rep. Maria Sachs – thought to be a toss-up – there’s another worth watching. There are signs that Republicans think Melanie Peterson, who’s in the horse industry, has a chance against Rep. Joe Abruzzo in SD 25, which includes Palm Beach Gardens, Wellington and most of interior Palm Beach County. Abruzzo had raised almost $186,000 at last count, while Peterson had brought in slightly more than $82,000. But the political profile of the district would seem to strongly favor Abruzzo. Obama carried the district by almost 18 points in 2008, and Sink won it by nearly 16.5 points in 2010. Democrats also have a lopsided registration advantage in the area; in 2010, more than 43 percent of voters were registered Democrats, while almost 31 percent were registered with the GOP.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.