Al Gore’s 2000 victory in Orange County, the first in the county by a Democratic Presidential candidate since 1944 sent shockwaves through the consulting class of Florida’s GOP. Having just captured complete control of state government in 1998, Central Florida was thought of as a reliable Republican area, the top of the “Republican Horseshoe” that had delivered the Legislature to the GOP, the Governorship to Jeb Bush and previous Presidential and statewide races to the party as well. But things were radically changing – Hispanic voters were beginning to populate the I-4 corridor and low-wage workers tied to the hospitality and amusement park industries were being organized effectively for the first time. After having carried Orange County in 13 consecutive Presidential elections, the GOP has now lost four straight and in both 2008 and 2012 lost by margins similar to the three metropolitan Southeast Florida counties. With control of reapportionment in Florida for the first time in history, the Republicans entered 2002 determined to gerrymander districts in Central Florida.
First came the Congressional map with appendage on then CD-8 (now CD-10) that took a district Republican Congressman Ric Keller had barely carried in 2000 into Lake and Marion counties for the first time. Never before had parts of Ocala been represented by an Orlando based Congressman. But now they were. House Speaker Tom Feeney wanted a district and sitting Congressman John Mica had to be protected. So came two more ugly districts that went north-south and tied Central Florida with far flung places and little in the way of common interests.
Then came the State Senate map where all the Democrats in the area were effectively packed into a single district which was conveniently more or less 1/3 African-American 1/3 Hispanic and 1/3 white. In the State House, the Democrats in the area were packed into two seats, the 36th and 49th, leaving Democrats largely helpless in the rest of the region.
That reapportionment process, I presented a map to the Senate Redistricting Committee with specific non-partisan remedies in Central Florida. Unfortunately, the Democrats from outside the region didn’t seem interested in fighting the GOP and a remarkable number of Democrats in both chambers voted for the final reapportionment plan, which was the most partisan map ever conceived in this state. I got public support from Senator Buddy Dyer, but otherwise was ignored by most Democrats. The hope among many was that the courts would act and throw out the districts, but they did not. Some Democrats felt the worse the map, the better the opportunity to win a court case. This was a flawed strategy that saw the Republicans draw a map that at the apex of GOP power claimed 84 State House seats and 28 State Senate seats.
When 2012 rolled around, the Republicans in the House abiding by the Fair Districts Amendment drew many accessible districts for Democrats in the region. The 2012 election, saw local Democrats take full advantage of the new map and flip four seats locally, compared with a net of two pickups for the Democrats in the rest of the state. But the State Senate and Congressional maps continued to be drawn along partisan lines and using a principle of incumbent protection. For the first time in memory Polk County was denied a second resident Senator thanks to the need by the GOP to keep both Senator Andy Gardiner and David Simmons seated. At the Congressional level, the former 8th, now renumbered the 10th continued to be a clear partisan gerrymander. The new 7th which took in the homes of two sitting Congresspeople was a seat that still favored Republicans but demographic trends could overtake the GOP by the end of the decade.
Following Judge Lewis’ decision to force the Legislature to redraw unconstitutional districts the arrogant and partisan nature of Republican Legislative leadership took hold again producing a map that essentially continues the partisan gerrymander of Central Florida districts in Congress.
Republicans have found a way to suspend reality in Central Florida for over a decade now. Using the reapportionment process and the complicity of many Democratic legislators from outside the region the GOP has maintained seats for their officeholders whose political and ideological views no longer represent anything close to the prevailing opinions in the region. But in time this cannot last, and even the gerrymandering of seats at all levels in Central Florida will not be enough to save many Republican officeholders.