In Central Florida, two congressional races already feature billboards, radio ads, a primary challenge and behind-the-scenes maneuvering.
And that’s with the elections more than 16 months away.
With Tuesday’s special congressional election in Georgia serving as a preview of whether Democrats can pull out wins in Republican-leaning districts, national Democrats already are eyeing Republican seats once considered safe, including Ron DeSantis’ Florida District 6 that includes parts of Lake and Volusia counties.
At the same time, national Republicans have been running ads against Stephanie Murphy, the Winter Park Democrat who defeated longtime Republican Rep. John Mica last year in District 7. Murphy also faces at least one potential challenge in the primary.
“We can expect a lot of attention on these two races,” said Susan MacManus, a professor of government at the University of South Florida. “If it truly is a Democratic midterm wave, which Democrats think it’s going to be, you’re going to see a lot more competitiveness, with people entering races you’d think they wouldn’t.”
In Georgia’s District 6 north of Atlanta, Democrat Jon Ossoff, Republican Karen Handel and their supporters have spent a combined $50 million in a race that many see as a bell weather for the national mood in 2018.
Central Florida’s District 7 could be another key test. It was redrawn before the 2016 election to include all of Republican-leaning Seminole plus a large segment of Democratic-leaning Orange County, including downtown Orlando.
Murphy defeated Mica, a 24-year incumbent, by three percentage points in 2016. For 2018, it’s listed as an “even” race by Cook Political Report’s partisan voter index.
In April, the National Republican Congressional Committee paid for a billboard on Interstate 4 in Winter Park stating, “Tell Stephanie Murphy, ‘No to Obamacare!’”
“That’s one of our top targets, that seat,” said NRCC regional spokeswoman Maddie Anderson. “We’re talking with several candidates. Things look good overall.”
In a district about 13 percent Puerto Rican and a quarter Hispanic, “the key is a candidate who appeals to a diverse population,” said state Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Longwood, who had considered running himself before deciding against it. “You have to appeal to swing voters and [independents], many who just moved here and don’t even know what happened in 2016.”
State Rep. Mike Miller, R-Orlando, and state Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, are both considering runs, with Simmons saying he is “98 percent there.”
The right Republican candidate to run in District 7, Simmons said, “has to have a record of success and understand the need for civility and working together to reach solutions. And that is what I bring to the table.”
Murphy also is facing a primary challenge on her left flank.
Chardo Richardson of Longwood, a former ACLU of Central Florida board member, said he is running on issues that include raising the minimum wage and universal health care, which remains controversial within the Democratic Party even as it defends Obamacare. Murphy is one of more than 100 Democratic members who has not signed onto a “Medicare for All” bill.
Richardson said he has been asked if a primary race could harm Democrats by diverting money needed for a general election.
“So just don’t run against our politicians, even if they’re not looking out for the people?” Richardson asked. “If they’re going to have a hard time holding the seat anyway, why not give Democrats a choice of who holds the seat?”
Murphy is strongly backed by national Democrats, who see her as an up-and-coming leader on security issues, including taking the lead in calling for White House adviser Steve Bannon to be removed from the National Security Council.
The Murphy campaign also stressed her small business credentials, including a bill she authored that would give small businesses greater access to loans, and her support of the “no budget, no pay” bill for members of Congress.
The Democrats hope that issues such as the unpopular Republican health care bill passed by the House and dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump will drive up their turnout in 2018.
Democrats haven’t won any of the three 2017 special congressional elections held so far this year, but they did eight to 12 points better than in 2016. That led them to add Republican-leaning districts like Florida’s District 6 to their wish list.
“Midterm elections are always tricky,” MacManus said. “It comes out to turnout. If Democrats get close, especially in DeSantis’s district, they’ll need pretty high turnout.”
DeSantis, R-Palm Coast, won by 17 percent in November, but Cook lists the district only as having a 7-point Republican advantage now. DeSantis has yet to make a decision on whether to run for governor in 2018 – and if he doesn’t run for re-election, it could be a closer race.
Eight Republicans had jumped in the race to succeed DeSantis when he briefly ran for U.S. Senate last year, including Navy veteran Brandon Patty of St. Augustine. Patty said Monday he would enter the race if DeSantis departs.
On the Democratic side, former Deputy National Security Adviser Nancy Soderberg has told the Daytona Beach News-Journal she also is seriously considering a run.
“What we’re already seeing is a record number of people running for office,” MacManus said. “When when you see that, that means there’s an awful lot of anxiety about what’s going on around them.”
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