The week that was in Florida politics: Dems move forward, GOP still in control

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Florida Democrats hadn’t celebrated much since, well, President Obama won the state in 2008.

But that changed Tuesday. Obama carried Florida again on the way to a second term in the White House, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson easily won re-election, and Democratic candidates picked up legislative and congressional seats.

For Republicans, the response to the election results ranged from anger to disbelief. After vowing for four years to topple Obama, they watched Republican Mitt Romney’s campaign get outmaneuvered in Florida and other key states. What’s more, GOP candidates lost some high-profile legislative races — including a likely defeat by state Rep. Chris Dorworth, who was in line to become House speaker in 2014.

Here’s a bit of reality, however, before Democrats celebrate too much and Republicans get lost in despondency: The GOP still has huge majorities in the state House and Senate and controls the governor’s office and all three Cabinet seats. In other words, Republicans will continue to dominate state government, at least for another two years.

Nevertheless, Democrats had reasons — both immediate and long-term — to celebrate Tuesday. In part, the elections showed Democratic strength among Hispanic voters and along the I-4 corridor, two intertwined issues that will be critical in the coming years.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

HEADING BACK TO WASHINGTON: Truth be told, Florida will go down as sort of a messy footnote in Obama’s victory Tuesday.

The president did well enough in other key states, such as Ohio, Virginia and Iowa, to lock up another term without needing Florida’s 29 electoral votes. Also, as part of Florida’s never-ending voting controversies, some Miami-Dade voters were still in line early Wednesday morning, after Obama was already assured of victory.

But bigger picture, Obama’s Florida campaign played a part in turning out voters who helped Democrats in other races. That included Hispanic voters in central Florida, where the Puerto Rican population is growing and providing a base of Democratic support.

State Democratic Chairman Rod Smith described Hispanics as an “absolute game changer” for Democrats. He said the party hired a full-time Hispanic outreach coordinator in central Florida after the 2010 elections and also said the Obama team helped increase Hispanic turnout.

“They saw very early that was going to be a critical vote in Florida,” Smith said.

An important issue is the perceived hard line that many Republicans have taken on the issue of illegal immigration. But U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., indicated after the election that the GOP needs to do a better job of connecting with Hispanic voters.

“The conservative movement should have particular appeal to people in minority and immigrant communities who are trying to make it, and Republicans need to work harder than ever to communicate our beliefs to them.,” Rubio told Roll Call.

Obama beat Romney in the most-populous counties along the I-4 corridor — Orange, Hillsborough and Pinellas — and in Osceola County, which has a large Puerto Rican population. Romney won in other areas of central Florida, including Polk, Lake, Seminole and Brevard counties. Volusia was almost a dead-heat, with Romney winning by less than 3,000 votes.

Nelson did even better as he trounced U.S. Rep. Connie Mack to earn a third term in the Senate. The Democrat handily won Orange, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Osceola, Polk, Seminole, Brevard and Volusia counties, while losing by fewer than 2,000 votes in Lake.

LEGISLATIVE SHOWDOWNS AND SURPRISES: Going into Tuesday’s elections, the parties and outside groups made pretty clear the races they considered battlegrounds.

But as returns rolled in, surprises started to emerge. First, Democrat Carl Zimmermann unseated Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Palm Harbor, in House District 65 in Pinellas County. A little later, Democrat Mark Danish knocked off Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, in House District 63 in Hillsborough County.

But late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning came the biggest stunner: Lawyer and retired firefighter Mike Clelland led Dorworth by 37 votes in House District 29 in Seminole County. Clelland’s lead expanded to 123 votes after provisional ballots were counted Thursday, and he appeared on the verge of victory.

The race would be a huge upset because Dorworth is slated to become House speaker in 2014. Under state law, the narrow margin likely would trigger an automatic recount. But Republican House members were preparing Friday for a Dorworth loss, with Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, being touted as a possible speaker in 2014.

Overall, Democrats had net gains of two Senate seats and a probably five House seats in Tuesday’s elections — though Republicans still dominate both chambers. Republicans will have a 26-14 advantage in the Senate and a 76-44 margin in the House, assuming Clelland holds on against Dorworth.

Also, Democrats gained seats in the congressional delegation, though they are expected to continue to be at a 17-10 disadvantage.

Incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the GOP’s continued Senate majority is disproportionately large compared to party registration numbers. He said that means “tens of thousands of independents and Democrats crossed the line and voted for Republican senators because, I think, we had better candidates with compelling ideas.”

The parties split what were probably the two marquee Senate races of the year. Republican Rep. Dorothy Hukill beat Democrat Frank Bruno in Senate District 8 in parts of Volusia, Marion and Lake counties. Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs beat Republican Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff in District 34 in Palm Beach and Broward counties. This year’s reapportionment process led to Sachs and Bogdanoff running in the same district.

Democrats won perhaps the highest-profile House race, when Maitland teacher Karen Castor Dentel defeated Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, in District 30 in parts of Seminole and Orange counties.

Democratic candidates Joe Saunders and Linda Stewart also won heavily contested seats in the Orlando area. But Republicans picked up two formerly Democratic seats when Monticello Republican Halsey Beshears won in a north Florida district, and Key Largo Republican Holly Merrill Raschein won in the state’s southernmost district.

YES AND NO: Merit-retention elections for Supreme Court justices usually draw little attention. But that changed this year when some conservative groups and leaders of the state Republican Party called for defeating justices R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince.

But while conservatives complained that the justices were too liberal, they never really mounted a full-fledged campaign. Meanwhile, the justices and supporters in the legal industry raised millions of dollars to convince voters that Lewis, Pariente and Quince should be retained.

In the end, the races weren’t even close, with each of the justices backed by more than 67 percent of the voters.

Ballots also included a barrage of proposed constitutional amendments that lawmakers put before voters. Some dealt with hot-button issues such as the federal health overhaul, property taxes, abortion and public money going to religious groups.

But voters rejected eight of the 11 amendments, approving only three, relatively non-controversial proposals that would offer property tax breaks for military veterans, first responders and low-income seniors.

As an example of the amendments that were defeated, one would have largely prohibited state funds from being spent on abortions. That proposal, known as Amendment 6, also would have whittled away privacy protections in Florida’s constitution that have been used in the past to overturn abortion restrictions.

“We hope that Tallahassee politicians will now turn their attention to expanding health care instead of trying to take away existing health coverage that women need,” said Lillian Tamayo, campaign chairwoman for Vote No On 6.

STORY OF THE WEEK: President Obama and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson win Florida, while Democrats also make gains in the Legislature and in the state’s congressional delegation.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “So the message is: ‘If you are outside the state and you are trying to politicize our judicial branch, stay out. This is an assault on our democracy, our separation of powers, and we’re not going to tolerate attempts to implement partisan politics for special interests.’ “— Supreme Court Justice Barbara Pariente, after she and two other justices overcame conservative groups’ opposition to win merit-retention campaigns.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, 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.