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With robust slate, Florida Democrats look to change numbers in Capitol

John Kennedy
jkennedy@gatehousemedia.com
Florida Times-Union

TALLAHASSEE — Seeking to catch what they hope is a blue wave this election season, Florida Democrats have fielded candidates in almost all of the 120 state House and 21 Senate seats up for grabs this fall in the nation’s biggest presidential battleground.

The state’s candidate qualifying period ended Friday, with Democratic contenders filing papers for every legislative seat on the ballot, except for a Panhandle House seat.

Across the state, it appeared 10 House Democrats were poised to win election without opposition, among 22 House and Senate seats across Florida where no Republicans filed to run.

Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, was the lone Republican to get a free pass.

Florida’s week-long qualifying period typically ends with at least a couple of dozen candidates from either party going unchallenged. The state’s Democratic and Republican parties sometimes don’t advance a candidate in districts where voter registration suggests little chance of victory.

But this year, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo said that her party wanted to make a point of contesting across the state.

“Our philosophy is that you’ve got to play to win,” Rizzo said. “If we’re going to win at every level, we’ve got to compete.”

She said Republicans have commanded Florida government for more than two decades but President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, combined with its crushing economic toll, has left many people looking for change.

“There’s more interest in presenting Democratic candidates in every district so voters can see the alternative,” she said. “Some of these are tough districts to win. But our candidates are stepping forward.”

Florida Republican Party Chairman Joe Gruters, a Sarasota state senator, scoffed at the idea of laboring to field candidates in districts where there was little chance of winning. He said Republicans have a different strategy.

“We are going on the offensive and we’re going to win back one or two state Senate seats and we’re going to pick up five-plus House seats,” Gruters said, promising, “we are also going to deliver the state for the president.”

Gruters added that fielding a full slate of candidates doesn’t make sense, with some districts leaning so heavily toward an opposing party, “you’re just leading these candidates out to the slaughter.”

Democrats are vastly outnumbered in the Florida Legislature. But Rizzo said gaining a majority at least in the Senate, where the party trails in seats 23-17, was not out of the question.

The party this week also announced a $2 million campaign directed at 50 down-ballot elections. Financing and staff is intended to help with organizing, communications and data in city, county and state legislative campaigns.

Rizzo said fielding a robust slate of candidates can also help the top of the ticket this fall.

The party’s presumptive presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, has been holding a narrow lead in Florida over Trump, according to most polls.

But winning Florida again in November appears critical to Trump’s chances of gaining enough electoral votes to hold onto the White House.

Gruters, though, said the big Democratic slate means, “they can commiserate together on election night. They won’t be alone.”