.Democrats appeared to have slightly weakened the GOP’s hold on Florida’s congressional delegation Tuesday, but the size of their gain depended on the outcome of a race matching a nationally known Republican firebrand and a political newcomer.
With two new seats in play because of population gains between 2000 and 2010, Republicans appeared to be on track to carry no more than 18 of the 27 districts in Florida’s delegation to the U.S. House. Democrats were likely to win at least nine and perhaps 10, up from the six seats they hold in the current Congress.
One Republican incumbent, embattled Rep. David Rivera, was already on track to being ousted. A second, Rep. Allen West, was in a fight for his political life that seemed headed for a recount.
The Democratic pick-ups were part of a mini-Democratic wave that seemed to be sweeping over Florida. Republicans lost seats in both chambers of the Florida Legislature, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson won re-election and President Barack Obama was in a neck-and-neck battle with GOP challenger Mitt Romney for the state’s 29 electoral votes.
Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said the gains highlighted “a model we can use in the future” based on a durable foundation built on the party’s traditional advantage with women, young voters, black voters, Latinos and Asian-Americans.
“If we hold our traditional, Democratic base and the working and middle class, we can win in the South, and we can win particularly in Florida, which is the prize of the South,” Smith said in an interview.
One Republican victory was a 22nd term for Congressman C.W. “Bill” Young, who has faced a spirited challenge from Jessica Ehrlich, seen as a young, rising star for Democrats.
Congressman Vern Buchanan easily beat back a challenge from former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald. Republican newcomer Trey Radel defeated his Democratic rival Jim Roach to represent residents of Congressional District 19 in the GOP bastion of southwest Florida.
The GOP was also celebrating wins by two freshmen incumbents who were targets of Democrats, nationally. Freshman Rep. Dan Webster beat back a challenge from former Orlando police chief Val Demings in central Florida and Rep. Steve Southerland prevailed over Democratic challenger Al Lawson.
But many of the night’s key wins went to Democrats. Lois Frankel, a former mayor of West Palm Beach and former state lawmaker, defeated former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner for an open seat in a district that runs south from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale before hooking west and heading toward Weston.
Former Congressman Alan Grayson, a strident liberal known for his fiery rhetoric, easily defeated Republican Todd Long in a Central Florida seat.
And Joe Garcia won a rematch with Rivera. The incumbent has faced an investigation by the Florida Ethics Commission and allegations that he funded a straw candidate to bash Garcia in the Democratic primary; Rivera has denied wrongdoing.
All eyes were focused on West’s race against Patrick Murphy, a former moderate Republican who said he was running as a Democrat as a reaction to the Tea Party movement. Murphy was leading, but by just 0.32 percentage points, well within the one-half percent margin that would trigger an automatic recount.
West has become known for his own brand of unyielding and conservative rhetoric, suggesting that more liberal members of Congress were essentially Communists and observing that Joseph Goebbels would be proud of Democratic propaganda.
“Murphy is a rising star in the party and will be a strong voice for the people of Florida in the United States Congress,” Smith said in a statement. “Tonight, the people of this district rejected divisive, hateful rhetoric in favor a fresh-faced, bipartisan approach centered around the issues important to Florida’s middle class families.”
–Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida