First round of Florida maps give GOP 1-seat boost

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TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Wednesday released a series of redrawn congressional maps that would give Republicans a bump while signaling that GOP majorities in the chamber are abiding by anti-gerrymandering provisions in the state constitution.

The four draft congressional maps have slight differences, but all would include 16 proposed districts where former President Donald Trump won a majority of votes in 2020, an increase from 15 on the current maps.

That number includes a new 28th Congressional District drawn in central Florida that a Republican would be overwhelmingly favored to win. The new GOP seat, which is the result of continued population growth in the state, comes as Democrats head into the 2022 midterms trying to defend a slim majority in the House.

The new maps were drawn by Senate staff with input from Senate attorney Jason Rojas and outside attorney Dan Nordby, who practices with the firm Shutts & Bowen and previously served as general counsel for the Republican Party of Florida. The drafts were released ahead of Senate redistricting meetings next week. The Florida House has not yet released drafts, and does not yet have any scheduled redistricting meetings.

It’s the second redistricting cycle under the so-called Fair District amendments, which are anti-gerrymandering provisions added to Florida’s constitution by voters in 2010. The amendments have a first-tier requirement that districts be contiguous, not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or specific political party and not negatively impact racial or language minorities from electing candidates of their choice.

There had been concern that Republican majorities would use the map to heavily bolster their already sizable advantages in Florida’s congressional delegation, where Republicans hold a 16-10 advantage. But some Democrats have so far been put at ease by the initial drafts.

“Overall takeaway is this isn’t an aggressive gerrymander,” said Matt Isbell, a Democratic consultant and data analyst.

Democrats had been particularly concerned about two seats, the 7th Congressional District held by Stephanie Murphy of Orlando and the 13th Congressional District held by Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg. Democrats saw both seats as GOP targets to be made more conservative, murmurs that helped convince Crist to run for governor rather than run for reelection in 2022 and prompted Murphy to this summer to openly consider a U.S. Senate bid. But both were left Democratic-leaning.

Murphy, a growing moderate voice in national Democratic politics, is facing a challenge from Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, one of the Florida Legislature’s most vocal Trump supporters. She was handed a break, however, when all four of the Senate draft congressional maps drew her district in a way that Joe Biden would have gotten 53 percent of the vote in 2020, according to an analysis of redistricting data. The seat Crist is vacating was won by Biden with just over 50 percent of the vote under the proposed maps.

The Florida House is overwhelmingly Republican, but the Florida Senate has been within flipping distance for Democrats in recent cycles. Trump won in 22 of the chamber's 40 districts in 2020, a number that would increase to 23 under the Senate draft maps.

As the new redistricting cycle begins, Republican leaders have been pressing their members to avoid doing anything that could run afoul of the state’s Fair Districts provisions, violations of which led to lawsuits in 2012 that uncovered improper influence by Republican political operatives.

After a lengthy legal fight, the Florida Supreme Court approved Senate and congressional lines drawn by the voting rights groups that were much more favorable for Democrats than the previous districts. Those new lines did not, however, lead to large Democratic gains, as Republicans continue to control nearly all elements of Florida’s state government.

Senate Redistricting Chair Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) said in a memo sent to his members on Monday that because of the reams of legal opinions, map-drawers have a better sense of how to apply Fair Districts this time, which limited the need for public hearings, which were a prominent feature of the 2012 redistricting process.

Public hearings have been one of the early clash points in a map-drawing process that to date has largely been behind the scenes. Lawmakers have said they would consider hearings, but were limited in what they could do because key data was released late by the U.S. Census Bureau due to pandemic-prompted delays. Those explanations have done nothing to quell the concerns from voting rights groups, some of whom successfully challenged the 2012 maps, that the new lines would be drawn in secret.

“It's disappointing that the Senate is releasing draft maps without taking the time to hear meaningful input from the public first,” said Katie Vicsik, Florida state director for All on the Line, a group affiliated with former Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Democratic Redistricting Committee. “While some advocacy organizations have had access to committee meetings, not one member of the public has provided comment at committee meetings in Tallahassee because the process and meeting schedule itself is inaccessible to most.”

In the weeks leading up to the release of the draft maps, Rodrigues and Senate President Wilton Simpson sent repeated warning to members to retain any records that might need to be turned over as part of a redistricting lawsuit and to avoid interacting with partisan operatives who want to massage the maps.

“Senators should continue to insulate themselves from partisan-funded organizations and other interests that may intentionally or unintentionally attempt to inappropriately influence the redistricting process,” Rodrgiues wrote in his memo.

Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book has so far maintained a bipartisan tone, not joining others — some in her own party — in criticizing the lack of transparency. She also signed onto a Tuesday statement with Simpson and Rodrigues calling for calm less than 24 hours before the Senate’s first maps were to be released.

The bipartisan trio warned their members that being drawn into districts with another incumbent, being drawn out of their current district, or any other overtly political considerations could be at odds with the state's anti-gerrymandering provisions.

“The time for campaigning is coming,” the three wrote, “but the time for legislating is now, which requires fulfilling our responsibility to pass constitutional maps.”

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