Florida Senate Outlook
by Derek Newton
For years, the Florida Senate has been the only bastion of common sense in our out-of-touch and out-of-control state government.
Since a 20-20 tie in the 40 member body in 1992 forced an odd power-sharing agreement, Democratic numbers in the Senate have gone steadily downward to just 14 today. With that in mind, here's a look at some of the top races for the Florida Senate this year.
First on everyone's radar is District 16 - the seat being vacated by squishy Republican Jim Sebesta. The district leans Republican. Sebesta won the seat in a 52/48 upset of Democratic Rep. Mary Brennan in the 1998 contest to replace Senator Charlie Crist. Yes, that one.
Republicans have a compelling primary fight on their hands between two sitting members of the House: Frank Farkas of St. Petersburg and Kim Berfield of Clearwater.
Farkas is the self-described "Rodney Dangerfield" of politics. Since he won his House seat, he's been a target of Democrats each time squeaking by with small victories. The Chiropractor is a respected fundraiser having already raised about $92,000 and spent a little more than $30,000 leaving him a comfortable $62,000 in cash.
Berfield is an underestimated young and energetic Republican whose father and mother both served on the Clearwater City Commission. Berfield has raised $114,000 and spent about $15,000 leaving her a strong $99,000 to spend.
My money is on Berfield to win this primary. She's a tenacious campaigner and smart Republicans will see the wisdom in nominating a woman. But the field is wide open for a Hillsborough Republican to shake things up by running. With two strong Pinellas candidates, a Tampa entry could win the nomination just based on geography.
And such a scenario would be a blessing Rep. Charlie Justice - the Democratic candidate. Like Farkas, Justice has been a frequent and aggressive target of the opposition yet manages to win. Justice is moderate but understated and has already given pundits and legislative leaders night sweats by raising a paltry $9,000. A 10:1 disadvantage this early is downright terrifying.
Even though there's been talk about finding another candidate to carry the Democratic banner in this seat (Lars Hafner?), it's unlikely. It's more likely that, regardless of how Justice performs, the Democratic Party will come to his rescue.
Winning this seat will be tough. And it will take some top-tier strategic thinking and flawless execution - especially if Charlie Crist is the nominee for Governor. But it's possible. And possible means District 16 is the number one focus of Senate Democrats.
Republicans will make noises about picking-up Rod Smith's seat in the Senate.
But that's a joke.
Any seat where George Sheldon beat Charlie Crist for Education Commissioner is probably safe. Smith's seat is conservative but it's not Republican. Democrats outnumber Republicans in that seat by 30% and as long as we don't nominate an idiot, we should keep it.
District 24 probability isn't on the target list for Democrats. But it should be.
This space-coast seat is currently held by Sen. Bill Posey. That you've never heard his name is all you need to know. He's a lightweight. Posey won the seat in 2000 in a very close race (Posey got 51.8% as a sitting House member).
Posey hasn't been on the ballot since then (he faced a write-in only in 2002). The district leans Republican but only by about 3% and it covers Brevard County and the eastern outreaches of Orlando which Bill Nelson represented in Congress. Nelson continues to enjoy strong political support there and with Nelson running statewide it may be the only place in Florida where coattails work for us.
Most importantly, former Senator Patsy Kurth is sitting there. Kurth was a well-respected moderate who was termed out of the Senate in 2000 and lost a tough race for Congress that year against Dave Weldon (59/39). Kurth could enter the race with name ID and a fundraising base to re-claim her old seat.
And it's political malpractice not to field a credible challenger in Senate District 12 represented by Victor Crist. Kathy Castor almost won in 2000 – falling 52/48 and the district actually has more Democrats than Republicans. I don't think there's a chance to beat Crist. He's actually a Democrat who happens to be a member of the Republican Party. Moreover, it's a good time to be running in Tampa with the last name Crist.
But the Castor example is why Democrats should get serious about this seat. Castor lost but used that race as a springboard onto the County Commission and now is the frontrunner to replace Jim Davis in Congress. The Senate seat will be open in 2010 and it would be a treat to have someone with name ID and experience in the wings.
Even though Democrats can't win the seat and shouldn't spend resources there, the Republican primary in District 8 will be a national event. Former Senate President Jim King faces proselytizing pabulum pusher Randall Terry.
Terry is the poster-child for right wing nut job with the resume to match: big wig in the terrorist group Operation Rescue and spokesperson for the Schindler family in the Terri Schiavo scandal.
King is a moderate. Republican, but a voice of reason in the Senate. If Terry knocks off King, the implications are not bad. They are catastrophic. Every Republican will lurch right and Terry's victory will be used a symbol of approval for the abuse of power stunt the Republicans pulled in the Schiavo case.
If ever there was a time to support a Republican, this may just be it.
It's a long shot to think Democrats will come into the 2007 session with anything more than 15 members. But even that would be a cause for celebration - especially if King wins and the other Republican moderates feel empowered to be rational, thoughtful Senators.