Democrats’ hopes of loosening the Republican chokehold on the Florida Senate were dashed Tuesday, as they captured one hotly contest Miami-Dade County seat but lost an incumbent Democrat in another.
Democrats also failed to seize open seats in North Florida and Tampa, despite a new Senate map aimed at doing away with gerrymandered districts.
In the Democrats’ highest-profile Senate victory Tuesday, state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez toppled Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla in Miami.
In a neighboring Miami-Dade race, however, Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard, lost to Rep. Frank Artiles, a conservative who gained notoriety for sponsoring a measure that would have required transgender people to use the bathrooms that match the genders on their birth certificates.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, who takes over as the chamber’s chief Democrat later this month, blamed Tuesday’s outcome on an unexpectedly strong performance by GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. Late Tuesday evening, Trump held a comfortable lead over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Florida.
“If I was able to net one, after Donald Trump won the state, then I think we were at least able to stop the tide,” Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said in a telephone interview Tuesday night.
Incoming Senate President Joe Negron said he was pleased that the GOP was returning a “strong majority” of 25 senators after the elections.
“With everything that happened, with redistricting and all the other challenges for us, I was focused on five races and it looks like we won four of them, and in addition we’ll still have a delegation of three Republican senators from Miami,” Negron, R-Stuart, said in a brief telephone interview.
The Senate districts were redrawn for this year’s elections after lengthy court battles about whether the Republican-controlled Legislature had complied with the voter-approved “Fair Districts” standards aimed at ending gerrymandering.
All 40 seats were up for election this year, but 16 Republicans and eight Democrats faced no opposition or token challengers, like write-in candidates or candidates without party affiliation.
The new Senate map left Braynon with the hope of gaining two to four seats in the chamber, where Democrats are now outnumbered, 26-14. Instead, he walked away with a total of 15.
Democrats easily picked up an Orlando-area seat held for the past eight years by Senate President Andy Gardiner, a Republican leaving office after Tuesday’s elections due to term limits.
In the District 13 race, former Democratic House member Linda Stewart, who also served two terms on the Orange County Commission, cruised to victory over Republican Dean Asher, a former president of the Florida Realtors.
Stewart was widely expected to capture the Democratic-leaning seat, which President Barack Obama carried by nearly 14 percentage points four years ago.
But less certain for the left were the four key races — two involving open slots and two in which incumbents were trying to hold onto their seats.
Senate leaders of both parties made District 8, a swing seat in North Florida, one of their top priorities.
Republicans, angling to preserve legislative control of the northern portion of the state, successfully banked on state Rep. Keith Perry’s ability to muster support from more conservative voters in rural regions of the district, which includes Putnam, Alachua and part of Marion counties.
Perry easily defeated former Democratic Sen. Rod Smith, winning by a margin of more than six percentage points.
Smith, an Alachua lawyer who also was a onetime head of the Florida Democratic Party, was unable to overcome Perry’s advantage by rallying the more liberal environs of Gainesville, where Smith was once a state prosecutor.
Meanwhile in Miami-Dade County, a revamped District 37 set the stage for a grudge match between Diaz de la Portilla and Rodriguez, a Harvard-educated lawyer who gained entry to the state House by defeating the senator’s brother, Alex, in 2012.
Democrats hold a slight partisan edge in the swing district, where independents account for nearly one-third of registered voters. With that in mind, Rodriguez tried to portray Diaz de la Portilla as too conservative for the redrawn district.
Diaz de la Portilla, however, campaigned as a moderate who was instrumental in blocking controversial legislation, including a measure that would have allowed people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on college campuses.
He painted to Rodriguez as a “weak and ineffective” back-bencher who “can put his record on a Post-it.” The incumbent also contended he would have more influence than his challenger in the GOP-dominated Senate.
Negron blamed Diaz de la Portilla’s loss on GOP nominee Trump’s performance in Miami-Dade County, which Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won by a nearly 30 percentage-point margin.
“I am very proud of the race (Diaz de la Portilla) ran. He was running in a very challenging political environment,” Negron said as he left the senator’s election night event.
In an equally contentious race, Bullard, D-Miami, was unable to withstand the challenge from Artiles in the battle for District 40.
Bullard is the heir to a legislative legacy forged by his late mother, Larcenia, but the redrawn district is home to far fewer black voters — and many more Hispanics — than the seat Bullard easily won in 2012.
In another Miami-Dade race, Republican Sen. Anitere Flores kept her spot in the chamber despite a hard-fought challenge for the District 39 seat by Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a first-time candidate. Flores outraised her opponent by a nearly 10 to one margin.
On the other side of the state, House Majority Leader Dana Young fended off challenges from Democrat Bob Buesing, and two no-party candidates, strip club owner Joe Redner and Sheldon Upthegrove.
Young, who had the backing of Republican leaders in Tallahassee, was the early favorite in the race and raised more than $2 million between her own campaign and a political committee that supports her.
The Hillsborough County seat is in a part of the state considered a bellwether for Democrats. Young, a Tampa lawyer, captured 48 percent of the vote, compared to Buesing’s 41 percent and Redner’s 9 percent.
“I’m very pleased with where we are,” Negron said. “I think it was a very successful cycle in what was a very challenging campaign season … to have that many races up at one time.”