Sorry, newspaper columnists, lack of competitive legislative races isn’t due just to redistricting

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In a one-two punch from the Tampa Bay Times, columnists John Romano and Daniel Ruth both blame the lack of competitive legislative races this election cycle on the redistricting process.

They believe gerrymandering has turned the system into an anti-Democratic incumbent protection plan.

There’s no denying the lack of competitive (never mind interesting) legislative races up for grabs. At least a third of the Legislature’s 40 senators and 120 representatives were re-elected last Friday when no one qualified to challenge them.

“The lack of opposition means candidates for eight state Senate seats — all incumbent Republicans — and 38 House seats, all but one an incumbent, automatically won their seats despite no ballots being cast in those districts,” Tampa Bay Timesreporter Michael Van Sickler neatly summarized. “That will make 2014 even less competitive than 2012, when 24 percent of lawmakers ran unopposed.”

But is this phenomenon due to the redistricting process or something else entirely?

Romano blames the former.

“The maps are drawn to have predetermined outcomes in elections,” writes Romano. “Republicans have given themselves enough safe districts to ensure they will remain in power, and they have given Democrats just enough safe districts to keep them from complaining.”

Characteristically, Ruth is more blunt.

“There seems to be precious little interest in challenging the status quo. There are probably a host of technical explanations for the resounding indifference to the democratic process. But the most obvious reason can be found in the fact there isn’t much of a real democratic process when it comes to serving in the Florida Legislature, or as it is otherwise known, a Confederacy of Chumps.”

It doesn’t surprise me that Romano and Ruth are dismayed. They’re in the political news business. Not that the Times does a stellar job covering state legislative races, but a dearth of races means the same to a newspaper as the end of football season does to ESPN.

Blaming the redistricting process is also low-hanging fruit.

Certainly, safe seats are drawn for incumbents. Anyone who suggests otherwise is probably working in the communications shop for Florida Senate President Don Gaetz or House Speaker Will Weatherford.

But this last redistricting process was also more Darwinian than its critics would have you believe. Several incumbent Republicans — Brad Drake and Marti Coley, Eric Eisnaugle and Steve Precourt — were drawn into the same district. That’s not “tenure protection,” as Ruth suggests.

All of this said, the real reason so many incumbents — the majority of whom are Republican — are going unchallenged is because Florida Democrats are the gang who can’t shoot straight.

Florida Democrats failed to recruit a candidate to challenge U.S. Rep. David Jolly in Congressional District 13 — the most battleground-y of battleground congressional seats.

Well, I shouldn’t say failed. Democrats were so inept with their recruiting that they failed to read the election law about a candidate changing parties less than a year before the qualifying period. That’s what kept their recruited candidate, Ed Jany, from filing as a Democrat for CD 13.

Still, what part did the redistricting process have to do with Democrats not being able to find a candidate in purple Tampa Bay?

State Democrats also failed to field a candidate in HD 120 — that would be the seat which represents the wild and wholly Florida Keys, where gay pride flags fly from hundreds of homes and businesses. Before Republican Holly Rashein won the seat in 2012, it was represented by the Democratic leader in the House.

Democrats struggled to find candidates to run in seats where Alex Sink won in 2010 or where Barack Obama won in 2012. And the candidates they did field in many of the possibly competitive seats are political newcomers, like Mary Grizzle in HD 66 or Shawna Vercher in HD 67.

Four years ago, one of the top two or three most bitterly fought state House races was in HD 57/60, a seat anchored in South Tampa. Republican Dana Young “upset” Democrat Stacy Frank after both candidates spent hundreds of thousands of dollars getting their message out to voters.

Young — a friend and client — has done an excellent job as a state representative and is likely the frontrunner to succeed Bob Buckhorn as Tampa mayor. But this doesn’t mean she should have gone unchallenged by Democrats, which are not hard to find in a blue town like Tampa.

Heck, Frank should have turned around and sought a rematch in 2012. Yet Young has now been re-elected twice without opposition and that doesn’t have anything with redistricting.

In modern America — where, according to a recent Pew Research report, people on the right and left are more likely to say it’s important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views — it is almost impossible for political mapmakers to draw perfectly fair districts and seats.

Democrats want to live where other Democrats are and Republicans want to live where other Republicans are.

But in the places where Democrats and Republicans most intersect, there is a lack of competitive legislative races, but it has little to do with gerrymandering. It has to do with one party’s competence and the other party’s lack thereof.

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.