Florida battleground features full slate of competitive House, Senate races

Florida is full of competitive Senate and House races in 2012, but good luck to any candidate who tries to break through the noise of what is guaranteed to be a fierce battle between Mitt Romney and President Obama in the Sunshine state.

The ultimate swing state, Florida was responsible for delivering George W. Bush to the White House in 2000, while Obama won there by 3 points in 2008. Romney trounced his rivals in the GOP primary there in January, and neither candidate can afford to take the state for granted.

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The economy is likely to be the focal point of the race in Florida, as in other states. One worrying sign for the Obama campaign is that the economic recovery in Florida has lagged behind other areas of the country. Florida’s unemployment rate is hovering around 9 percent — down from a high of 11.3 percent in 2010, but still far above the national rate of 8.2 percent.

Adding to the high-octane political climate will be the convergence of conservative leaders from across the country in Tampa, Fla. for the Republican National Convention in August.

Democrats hold a registration advantage of more than 600,000 in Florida, and their margin is growing, according to voter registration tallies maintained by the state Democratic Party. But Republicans have long had an outsize presence in the state’s political offices. The GOP controls both chambers of the legislature, the governor’s mansion and 19 of the 25 seats in the congressional delegation.

For Obama, his recent embrace of gay marriage could be a major factor among the state’s large swath of senior citizens, who polls show are more likely than younger voters to oppose gay marriage. Florida voters approved an amendment in 2008 banning same-sex marriage.

“It’s more of a defining issue for Obama. It sends a cultural message about where he is,” said Justin Sayfie, a top GOP consultant and an aide to former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.). “For some of those independents in central and north Florida who are undecided, this may tip their decision against him.”


Senate race 

What was expected to be a very tight race for two-term Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is looking less competitive, in part due to a field of candidates that continues to disappoint the state’s Republican establishment.

After no clear front-runner emerged from the field of five vying for the nomination for much of 2011, Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) entered the race in what was supposed to be a saving grace for Republicans. Other candidates dropped out to make way for Mack, whose father was a former Florida senator and shared his name.

But Mack’s campaign has been plagued by one pitfall after another, and polls show Nelson, whose approval ratings are well under 40 percent, continuing to hold a double-digit lead over both Mack and former Sen. George LeMieux (R-Fla.).

Underscoring the continued GOP discontent with the field, former Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.) announced last week he is weighing a late entry into the race and will make a decision shortly.

But in a state known for its razor-tight margins in statewide races, turnout is expected to be a dominant factor. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns will be spending heavily to get out the vote, and the effects will likely be echoed down-ballot.

Al Cardenas, who leads the American Conservative Union and formerly chaired the Florida Republican Party, said he can’t see a scenario where Romney wins Florida and Nelson wins reelection.

“Turnout will be determined by the presidential,” said Cardenas. “Nelson’s going to have to hope to win based on the president doing well.”


House races

Redistricting in Florida created opportunities for Democrats, including a new seat in the Orlando area where former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) is heavily favored to win. The Hill projects that Democrats will pick up between two and three seats in Florida this cycle.

In southeastern Florida, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) chose to run in a neighboring district rather than his old district, which was made more Democratic. A new internal poll from his opponent, Democrat Patrick Murphy, shows the two tied.

In West’s old district, Adam Hasner, one of the Republicans who dropped out of the Senate primary after Mack got in, faces a competitive race against the winner of the Democratic primary, where former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel is in the lead.

The state’s late primary date on August 14 gives a disadvantage to challengers, who have little time to raise money after the primary to use against the incumbent. But Democrats are hoping that ethics allegations dogging Republican Reps. David Rivera (Fla.) and Vern Buchanan (Fla.) could help them pick up a few extra seats they would otherwise be unlikely to capture.

Florida Democratic Party spokesman David Bergstein said several factors — including a growing Hispanic population, dissatisfaction with Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Romney’s problems with the GOP base — could all push voters toward Democratic candidates.

A major problem for House candidates from both parties may be their inability to get their message out to voters on television. Coverage of the presidential and Senate races will dominate local newscasts, and those same campaigns will swallow up the coveted time slots for television ads.

That could force House candidates to take their message to less crowded venues, such as radio, cable television and the Internet, said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.

“It’s going to be so drowned out in the some of the key markets, with Florida being a swing state in the presidential and the Senate,” said MacManus. “Almost the only way they’re going to get any coverage is to buy ads.”