ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida’s congressional maps remain in limbo as Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP Legislature continue their standoff over a Black district in North Florida. And nobody quite knows what’s going to happen next.
But lost amid the deadlock is that even the Legislature’s so-called “compromise” redistricting map would radically reshape two Central Florida seats, turning Democrat Stephanie Murphy’s district more Republican and making Val Demings’ district more white.
There is still some hope for Democrats, however, as a new lawsuit and a potential impasse following a veto could throw it all to the courts — meaning neither the governor nor Legislature might get end up getting what they want.
“There’s definitely going to be a train wreck here,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida.
The House and Senate were already at odds over the new maps when DeSantis inserted himself into the process in an unprecedented move in January.
The Senate’s map kept districts relatively the same, with a 16-12 GOP advantage, while the House drafted a map that elections expert Matt Isbell called a “crazy” gerrymander, giving the GOP and 18-10 advantage.
It also shifted Murphy’s district from Democratic-leaning Orange into Republican-leaning Volusia and changed Demings’ district enough that a majority of Democratic primary voters would be white in a district drawn to elect a minority.
But then DeSantis sprung his own surprise map on Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, one that would give the GOP a 20-8 advantage. It also would change Central Florida’s lines and completely dismantle Democratic U.S. Rep. Al Lawson’s district in North Florida.
DeSantis called Lawson’s District 5, which stretches from Jacksonville to Tallahassee, “an unconstitutional gerrymander” despite its creation to bring in more Black representation under the federal Voting Rights Act.
The House seemed to accept DeSantis’ argument, passing a new map that created a district entirely in Duval County. The seat was less Black than the old one, but it was compact and still leaned Democratic. The Senate then abandoned its own map and approved the House one.
For DeSantis, it still wasn’t enough.
“They called his bluff, and it didn’t work,” Isbell said. “They thought they could give him an out. They knew they couldn’t do really what he wanted to do, which was create a maximum Republican plan. … None of this makes any sense. Was anybody listening to anybody during this? It’s like the House had its head in the sand about what he was going to do.”
Do Courts Step In?
DeSantis has vowed to veto the plan, and then the real drama would begin. The Legislature could reconvene to override his veto with a two-thirds vote in each chamber.
If the Legislature doesn’t override, the state courts could end up drawing the final map, just as they did in 2015 after several lawsuits.
Looming over that process is the lawsuit filed last week in federal court by two voter rights groups, Common Cause Florida and Fair Districts Now.
The suit claims DeSantis overstepped his executive powers in proposing his own maps to favor Republicans, violating state and federal laws against partisan gerrymandering, and that the maps passed by the Legislature were influenced by his interference.
It wants the courts to step in and draw the districts, which must be done by the June filing deadline. And the state can’t just default to the old lines because of the new 28th district, which the Legislature put in Polk County.
If there is an impasse over the veto, or if federal courts throw out the Legislature’s map, Democrats could possibly come out the winners.
The courts, McDonald said, “generally tend to adopt maps with minimal change. … If the court adopted that approach for Florida, then you would expect maps that would do minimal change to Districts 7 and 10.”
Still, he added, both the Florida Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court are more conservative than in the past. And recent rulings from Washington have rubber-stamped state maps, despite legal challenges over racial issues, because justices claimed too little time remained before this year’s elections.
“(Even) if there was any obvious violation in Florida’s constitution, they could let it slide for ‘22,” McDonald said.
But the question remains: What will Democrats in the Legislature will do?
Democrats could deal DeSantis a defeat by voting with Republicans to override a veto, but they’d still be voting for the maps weakening the Black vote in North and Central Florida.
They could also refuse to join Republicans, letting DeSantis’ expected veto stand and throwing the maps to the courts where they could get a more favorable result.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she doesn’t know what other Democrats will do if a special session is called.
“We have a lot of concerns with the current maps not providing minority representation,” she said. “So I don’t know if in good conscience we could vote for maps that are not constitutional in our eyes.”
Eskamani had been considered a major contender for Congress after Murphy announced her retirement. But with the maps drawn as they are now, she said her sole focus was on running for reelection in the state House.
Democrats consider District 10 to be a protected Black access district and being potentially turned into a white district in the Democratic primary “is definitely problematic,” said Eskamani, an Iranian-American. “It’s really important that we’re doing what we can to amplify the voices of [minorities] and allow communities of color to pick a candidate of their choice.”
Demings, who is Black, is leaving the House to run for U.S. Senate. While most Democratic District 10 candidates are Black, including pastor Terence Gray, state Sen. Randolph Bracy, civil rights attorney Natalie Jackson and activist Maxwell Frost, Eskamani said she expected to see more non-Black Democratic candidates jump into the race if the district’s demographics change.
“It’s the going to be the ‘Orlando Democratic seat,’ so there’s going to be a lot of folks who will run towards that,” she said.
No matter how it turns out, DeSantis is getting what he wants, Isbell said.
Every seat matters when a swing of six House seats would shift control of Congress back to Republicans. DeSantis has been heavily criticized by conservative groups for not pressing the GOP’s advantage to the fullest.
“For him, it’s not even a matter about the final result,” Isbell said. “People keep saying ‘DeSantis is risking a more Democratic map in the courts, he should just sign this.’ But he doesn’t care. He only cares about how he looks. … He’s not going to get the blame. He’s going to look like the conservative warrior who was screwed over by the courts or the Legislature.”
For DeSantis, Isbell said, “He has all the incentive in the world to just barrel through all of this.”