As many of you know, Florida House District 44 is now up on the auctioning block. And as some of you may know, this is the place in Florida that I consider home. For nearly 20 years, I would go to Disney, I-Drive, Dr. Phillips football games (and see them destroy West Orange), any do many more activities which defined the area. I know each neighborhood like the back of my hand, and most of my best friends still live in the district today. I still remember when Apopka-Vineland Road was two lanes and Universal Studios didn’t exist. As you can tell, I have a strong emotional attachment to the district.
But how will the special election turn out in HD 44?
This is one of those districts that can play tricks on the mind. During the times of Dan Webster’s reign as House Minority Leader and then Speaker after the GOP gained the majority, this used to be one of the strongest Republican districts in the state. But when looking at the numbers today, only 38% of the district is Republican, while Democrats make up 32% and NPA/Others are 30%. The district has shifted from a traditional Republican seat to a, what can now be considered, a typical south Orange County seat. Others/NPAs have become a large part of the electorate in south Orange County, with partisan identification disappearing.
But when looking at Others/NPAs in Orange County, they usually are Hispanics. While many Hispanics are not identifying with a party, they do vote highly Democratic. One reason some Hispanics (especially Puerto Ricans) don’t identify with a party is because they keep their close ties to their mother country, which has their own political parties on the legislative level. Evidence of this link is Senator Darren Soto’s campaign logo, an orange frog, which nearly replicates the logo of Puerto Rico’s “Puerto Ricans for Puerto Rico” party, which advocates center-left and green politics. So if you wondered why someone would have an orange frog on their campaign sign, there you go!
This is not the case in HD 44. Most of the Others/NPAs are white. These voters still tend to vote Republican. Many of these are the “Charlie Crist types” who left the GOP because of right-wing extremism, but they still vote Republican on the local level. But with this being the case, the GOP is still strong in the district. The network of churches along Apopka-Vineland Road (including one of the largest LDS temples) has become a political connection network for right-wing politics in the district. Therefore, if a Republican comes out of this district, they are more than likely to be extremely conservative. Steve Precourt and Eric Eisnaugle are perfect examples.
Apopka-Vineland Road itself has becoming dividing line when it comes to partisanship in the district. In the Webster years, this entire area was considered strongly Republican. But now, those on the west side of Apopka-Vineland Road (the wealthy Bay Hill neighborhoods and the town of Windermere) remain strongly Republican while those on the East side of the road (now called East Bay, but formerly Sand Lake Hills) are starting to trend Democratic. But still, when this district was drawn, the Republicans in the House were careful enough to exclude strong minority areas like the black neighborhoods of Winter Garden and Tangelo Park, as well as the Hispanic population of north Ocoee. Therefore, the district stays true to its Republican roots.
As expected, tourism is the biggest industry in the district. From hourly workers to management, every type of employee of the tourism industry is located in the district. One industry that has declined in importance is the defense industry. Back in the days of the Cold War, many of the district’s electorate worked at Lockheed-Martin. But with the reduction in missile defense, the Orlando office only employs a little over 4,000 workers. In the past this group had a strong impact on how the district votes, but the tourism and service industry has taken complete control.
So, what issues are big in this district? On the social front, both abortion and gay marriage are big ones. The abortion issue is still strong with those who have a connection to the Apopka-Vineland churches, even more than gay marriage. But the gay marriage is a strong issue amongst the rank-and-file Disney employees. Unfortunately, many of them are temporary and not registered to vote in Florida. In addition to social issues, economic issues also could play a factor. Those employed in management are usually conservative fiscally, which is no surprise. But those who work hourly rarely go out to vote, and are non-existent in any type of special elections.
While the numbers are starting to get better in HD 44 for the Democrats, it is still a Republican district. It could be a district that Democrats can win in presidential election years, but will more than likely lose it in special elections and mid-term election years. I would assume that the Florida Democratic Party would not target this special election, and would be right in doing so. Candidate recruitment in this district has been horrible over the years. The last quality candidate to run would have been Craig Crawford (yes, that Craig Crawford, of Orlando Sentinel, Hotline and MSNBC fame) against the up-and-coming Dan Webster.
But even though the Democrats might not win the district, it does not mean that they couldn’t test some possible campaign messages in this district that they could eventually use in a Gubernatorial year election. One issue that might gain huge traction is minimum wage for tipped employees. Tipped employees get a much lower minimum wage than the average minimum wage earner. But in states like California, the minimum wage is uniformed no matter if you are a tipped employee or not. If servers in the district were told that the Democratic Party wanted to create a uniformed minimum wage, I predict that servers would be lining up to register to vote and actually vote Democratic. This has the possibility of being an explosive issue that has never been discussed. This special election might be a perfect place to test the issue, but organization would also need to be involved, which requires more local participation.
With the exception of issue testing, the Democrats should do nothing. More than likely, the district won’t be competitive until 2016. Then, if the Democrats recruit the right candidate, they can win and retain the district. But as of right now, there are no strong candidates and the conservatives are well organized.