TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was heavily criticized last spring when he pushed Republican lawmakers to adopt congressional maps that were much more friendly to the GOP.
Republican lawmakers were initially reluctant to go along with the governor and GOP legislative leaders even punished rank-and-file members for siding with DeSantis.
But Republicans in Florida and nationally are now praising the governor for strong-arming his own party to approve his congressional maps, which netted Florida Republicans four additional congressional seats on Election Day and essentially helped the GOP win the tiny House majority.
“Republicans in Congress owe a big thank you to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose insistence on redrawing the state’s congressional districts led to a four-seat pickup in the U.S. House on Tuesday,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Florida Republican who could serve as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee after Republicans assume control of the chamber in January. “Florida now has 20 Republican members of the House as a result of the governor’s insistence on his maps. Only one state has more Republicans in Congress.”
“The slim new Republican majority in the House would have been even smaller without Florida,” he added.
The accolades help fuel the governor’s national ascent ahead of a likely 2024 presidential bid as some Republicans and big donors begin looking for an alternative to former President Donald Trump, who earlier this week jumped into the White House race.
During the once-in-a-decade process, DeSantis vetoed a map drawn by the Florida Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans and stocked with DeSantis allies. The DeSantis-crafted plan boosted Republican leaning seats to 20 out of 28, four more than the plan drawn by GOP lawmakers.
The DeSantis map was contested by Democrats and voting rights groups, especially because it erased North Florida’s traditional Black-performing congressional district held by former Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.), who lost his bid for re-election when he challenged Rep. Neal Dunn in a Republican-leaning seat. Several groups who sued to get the maps tossed alleged overt politics was the reason for changing Lawson’s district. That legal challenge is ongoing.
The four additional GOP seats baked into Florida’s new maps, plus Republicans doing better than expected in New York, is serving as the backbone of the House GOP’s majority, some Republicans said. The GOP in New York flipped four seats.
“The gain in Florida and New York made a big difference for the majority,” said Congressional Leadership Fund President Dan Conston. “Florida’s new map helped quite a bit.”
Headed into Election Night, many predicted a national red wave that would have seen Republicans gain a significant majority. That didn’t materialize, leaving GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy with a much slimmer majority — a potential headache as he tries to wrangle an unruly caucus. Several of the caucus’ far-right members,including Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, have opposed McCarthy becoming speaker if the GOP takes control of the chamber.
Unlike other parts of the country Florida did see a red wave. State Republicans now hold a 20-8 majority in Florida’s congressional delegation and DeSantis got 532,802 more votes than in 2018 and won by a record nearly 20-point margin as national Democrats all but abandoned Florida. In 2018, a collection of national Democratic groups pumped nearly $60 million into Florida, a number that was less than $2 million this cycle.
“More Florida Democrats’ problems on Election Night would have unfolded regardless of the gerrymander,” said Matt Isbell, a Democratic map drawer and data analyst. “The lack of national aid to Florida Democrats ensured the resource disparity was so high that it created the incredibly lopsided turnout we saw. However, had the original legislative maps been enacted, several districts would have been seen as competitive races.”
Seats like Miami’s 27th Congressional District, held by Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, was nationally watched and, on paper, competitive. But she blew out Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo, 57-42. Likewise, in Pinellas County’s 13th Congressional District that was held by former Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist, who resigned to run for governor, Republican Anna Paulina Luna easily beat Democrat Eric Lynn, 53-45, in a race that was supposed to be one of the midterm’s most competitive. Same goes for the Orlando-area’s 7th Congressional district, which was represented by outgoing Democrat Stephanie Murphy. It should have been competitive, but Republican Cory Mills dispatched Democrat Karen Green 58-41.
“Look back at 2014 and the DCCC helping fund Gwen Graham’s masterful field program to turn out voters and knock off [Republican incumbent] Steve Southerland,” Isbell said of a well-known Democratic upset. “The lack of any competitive races in Pinellas or Central Florida meant that there was no national aid, and hence the turnout disparity was just as bad in those regions.”
The maps were left in place for the 2022 midterms, but still face significant legal challenges from a coalition of groups led by the League of Women Voters of Florida, which successfully sued under state anti-gerrymandering provisions during the 2012 redistricting cycle. The group argues that the DeSantis map was politically-motivated to help Republicans, specifically pointing to the map erasing a Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville seat held by Lawson, which was the region’s lone Black performing seat.
In May, U.S. District Court Judge J. Layne Smith ruled against the DeSantis drawn maps because he said the new north Florida seat “diminishes African Americans ability to elect candidates of their choice,” which is in violation of Fair Districts, the anti-gerrymandering provisions in the state constitution.
Groups trying to get the current maps tossed for future election cycles say that the DeSantis-drawn political lines were always designed with a political endgame in mind.
“Tuesday’s midterm congressional elections were held under a congressional map that was already found to be blatantly unconstitutional by a state court judge, under Florida’s Fair District Amendments,” the groups challenging the maps, including the League of Women Voters of Florida and Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute, said in a statement earlier this week. “As control of the United States House hangs in the balance, we are once again reminded of the importance of free and fair elections.”
But Liam Donovan, a GOP lobbyist, said that if Tallahassee Republicans had their way, Democrats would have the inside track to take the House at this point.
“McCarthy needs to send DeSantis and [Lee] Zeldin fruit baskets,” he said.
Politics, Policy, Political News Top Stories