10 big Florida House races to watch this year

Published On: Jul 25 2012 05:45:50 PM EDT
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Republicans will control the Florida House after November --- that much is clear. But will Democrats pick up enough seats and procedural strength to slow the GOP's agenda?

The once-a-decade redistricting process has helped create contested races across the state. In some districts, those races will play out in the Aug. 14 primary elections, while others will involve Republicans and Democrats battling into November.

Here are 10 House races that bear watching this year:

DISTRICT 7: Rural North Florida voters for generations elected conservative Democrats to the Legislature. But the GOP has made inroads in recent elections and, doubtless, would like to capture the District 7 seat, which effectively became open when Democrat Leonard Bembry decided to run for Congress.

The district is massive, stretching from Gulf County to Madison County, and has drawn four Republican candidates and three Democrats. Monticello Republican Halsey Beshears had raised the most money, $152,689, as of July 6, but he and some of the other candidates also have poured their own money into the race --- most notably, Port St. Joe Republican Jamey Westbrook has spent $120,000 on his campaign, while Perry Republican Don Curtis has loaned his campaign $100,000.

Other candidates in the race include Republican Mike Williams of Madison and Democrats Thomas Dickens of Crawfordville, Robert Hill of Bristol and A.J. Smith of East Point.

DISTRICT 17: As he seeks a third term, Rep. Ronald "Doc" Renuart of Ponte Vedra Beach faces two Republican primary opponents and a substantially redrawn district.

Renuart has represented coastal Duval County and northeast St. Johns County, but the new District 17 eliminates Duval and takes in a far-larger part of St. Johns, including the St. Augustine area. Challenger Mike Davis has received the backing of some major St. Augustine political players, such as term-limited Rep. William Proctor. The other Republican, Kim Kendall, also touts endorsements from key GOP figures in Northeast Florida.

Renuart leads the other candidates in collecting contributions and has received help from the state Republican Party. St. Johns County is a GOP bastion, and the winner of the primary will not have a Democratic opponent in November.

DISTRICT 21: Like Renuart, Republican Rep. Keith Perry of Gainesville will have to seek votes in a redrawn district that differs dramatically from where he first got elected in 2010. The new district includes western Alachua County and all of Gilchrist and Dixie counties, while Perry's old district stretched from Alachua into Levy and Marion counties.

Democratic candidate Aaron Bosshardt of Gainesville has been competitive financially with Perry, raising $116,140, through last week. While Perry's latest campaign-finance numbers have not been posted on the state Division of Elections website, he had raised $123,555 through July 6.

Bosshardt faces a Democratic primary against Andrew Morey of Gainesville. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the newly drawn district, which Democrat Alex Sink carried in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

DISTRICT 27: Spreading across the southern half of Volusia County, District 27 could be a sleeper race to watch in November.

The seat is open, and Volusia County traditionally has been a swing area of the state. For example, Rep. Dorothy Hukill, a Republican, represented much of southern Volusia for the past eight years, but her predecessor, Suzanne Kosmas was a Democrat. Also, voters in the newly drawn district went for Republican Rick Scott in the 2010 gubernatorial race but Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race.

Republican David Santiago, a former Deltona city commissioner, has received contributions from major Tallahassee players as he competes in a primary against Orange City attorney George Trovato. The winner will run against Democrat Dennis Mulder, a former Deltona mayor, in the general election.

DISTRICT 30: Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, has taken high-profile stances since getting elected in 2008, including being an outspoken critic of the federal health overhaul and trying to shut down Internet cafes. But he could be in for a slugfest in November, as Maitland Democrat Karen Castor Dentel tries to unseat him in the largely suburban Orlando district.

Dentel has deep political roots. Her mother, Betty, served as the elected state education commissioner in the 1980s and 1990s, and her sister, Kathy, represents part of the Tampa Bay area in Congress.

Most of the District 30 population is in southwest Seminole County, though the redrawn boundaries also include a section of Orange County. Plakon had raised $170,682 through July 6, while Dentel raised $53,482 between April 6 and July 6. Sink carried the area in the 2010 gubernatorial election, but Seminole County's legislative delegation in recent years has been solidly Republican.

DISTRICT 34: Whether serving in the Legislature or on the state Public Service Commission, outspoken Nancy Argenziano always has kept things interesting. Now, she is trying to return to the House as an independent candidate and is challenging Republican incumbent Jimmie Smith --- who also has shown he can make things interesting.

Argenziano, who served as a Republican in the House and the Senate from 1996 to 2007, has railed against the direction of the GOP in recent years and also has angered powerful lobbies, such as the utility industry. Smith, an Inverness Republican who was elected in 2010, has drawn attention and controversy for legislation aimed at requiring drug testing for state workers and welfare recipients.

District 34, which includes Citrus County and part of Hernando County, has been a Republican stronghold, with Gov. Rick Scott trouncing Sink in the area in 2010. Two Democrats, Lynn Thomas Dostal and Robert Raymond Goocher, are competing in a primary to run against Smith and Argenziano in the general election.

DISTRICT 68: The state Democratic Party and labor groups have gotten behind St. Petersburg attorney Dwight Dudley as they eye an open seat in Pinellas County.

But in November, Dudley might have to beat former Republican Rep. Frank Farkas, who announced he would run for the seat after incumbent GOP Rep. Jeff Brandes jumped into a Senate race last month. Farkas served in the House from 1998 to 2006 and will face Daryle Hamel of St. Petersburg in the Aug. 14 Republican primary.

Though district lines are changing this year, voters in the area have bounced back and forth between Republicans and Democrats in recent years. After Farkas left office, Democrat Bill Heller represented the area from 2006 to 2010, before losing to the Republican Brandes in 2010.

DISTRICT 112: Forget the niceties as former lawmakers Gus Barreiro and Alex Diaz de la Portilla brawl for the Republican nomination in an eastern Miami-Dade district.

The Miami Herald reported that voters have received nasty mail pieces focusing on Diaz de la Portilla's messy divorce from a Tallahassee lobbyist. Meanwhile, Barreiro is getting hammered about his firing from a Department of Juvenile Justice job because of allegations he used a state computer to look at adult material online.

Barreiro served in the House from 1998 to 2006, while Diaz de la Portilla served in the House and Senate from 1994 to 2010. The District 112 campaign also includes Democrats Alex Dominguez and Jose Javier Rodriguez, with Rodriguez raising substantially more money than his primary opponent.

DISTRICT 116: Redistricting especially hit home for Republican Reps. Jose Felix Diaz and Ana Rivas Logan. Stuck together in a Miami-Dade district, they are battling in a primary that is almost certain to decide the winner of the seat.

Both candidates were first elected to the House in 2010 and passed high-profile legislation during this year's session. Diaz shepherded a controversial claims bill that requires Lee Memorial Health System to pay $15 million for the care of a boy who was born with debilitating injuries. Meanwhile, Rivas Logan sponsored a compromise measure that expanded the powers of pharmacists to give vaccinations, ending a long-running fight between physician and pharmacy groups.

Simply judging by campaign contributions, Diaz appears to have an edge in the race. He had raised $243,835 as of July 6, while Rivas Logan had raised $138,470. The winner of the primary faces only write-in candidates in November.

DISTRICT 120: With House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, running for the Senate this year, Republicans are trying to pick up a seat in a district that includes Monroe County and part of southeast Miami-Dade.

But in a bit of political irony, the GOP could rely on a former Saunders aide --- Republican Holly Merrill Raschein --- to capture the seat. Raschein, who also worked as an aide to Saunders' predecessor, Republican Rep. Ken Sorensen, faces former Key West Mayor Morgan McPherson in the Aug. 14 primary.

Raschein has raised more money than McPherson and also has received backing from some influential Tallahassee lobbies, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida. The winner of the primary will face Democrat Ian Whitney, who is a party state committeeman and has received support from groups such as the Florida Education Association and the Service Employees International Union.

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