A word of warning for Florida Democrats in 2018; be cautious about eyeing Pinellas County Sen. Jeff Brandes’ District 24 seat.
After the somewhat surprising success of Rick Kriseman, who edged out former mayor Rick Baker, Florida Democrats are starting to think a “blue wave” will give them a legitimate shot at Brandes, the incumbent Republican in SD 24.
They may have to rethink that strategy.
But first, a few facts.
One of the most visible distinctions between Brandes’ SD 24 and the City of St. Petersburg is voter registration.
Republicans make up 38 percent of SD 24, and hold a five-point advantage over Democrats (33 percent), while ‘Other’ and no-party-affiliated voters make up the rest (29 percent).
In contrast, St. Pete is 46 percent Democratic — an 18 percent registration advantage over Republicans (28 percent) while ‘Other’ party affiliation voters make up 26 percent of the electorate.
One of the main reasons Baker found success as a Republican in the mostly Democrat-leaning city of St. Pete was his popularity in the African-American community, where he spent a good amount of time.
Sixty-nine percent St. Pete voters are white, 20 percent are African-American, a significant (and influential) portion of the electorate.
In the primary, Baker bested Kriseman 51 to 38 percent in precincts with over 80 percent African-American registration. This came despite Kriseman’s support and endorsement from former President Barack Obama and tying Baker to Trump as much as possible.
And while Trump proved a winning strategy in St. Pete’s general election, it only resulted in a three-point victory for Kriseman, 51.62 to 48.38 percent.
In comparison, SD 24 is 85 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic. Only 4 percent of voters are African-American.
Republicans hold a five percent registration advantage over Democrats in SD 24 but outperform them by much higher numbers. In the 2014 Governor’s race, Republicans turned out +9 over Democrats, giving Brandes a victory by nearly 14 percent.
In 2016, SD 24 Republicans performed +6 over Democrats, where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 7 percent and Marco Rubio beat Patrick Murphy by 8 percent.
Those two elections played out very differently in St. Pete. Democrats outperformed +18 over Republicans in 2014, where longtime St. Petersburg resident (and Republican-turned-Democrat) Charlie Crist beat Rick Scott by 33 percent.
Similarly, Democrats outpaced Republicans +18 in 2016, when Clinton beat Trump by 23 percent and Murphy beat Rubio by 19 percent.
Turnout in presidential cycles historically tends to favor Democrats, and SD 24 had a Republican advantage of 7.5 percent at the top of the ticket.
In a midterm gubernatorial race in 2018, where Republican performance historically is even better (+9 percent for 2014), Democrats would face a very steep uphill climb. This means Democrats would need to boost turnout by double of that in the St. Pete mayoral race — as well as siphon off some of the broad support for Brandes among both Republicans and independent voters.
As a family man with four young children (including a newly adopted daughter), an Iraq War Veteran, businessman and Republican who leans libertarian, Brandes appeals to a Republican base as a fiscal conservative. He is a staunch believer in limited government and Second Amendment rights.
But even more importantly, especially to a broader electorate: Brandes isn’t afraid to shake things up in Tallahassee.
As a Republican in a GOP-majority Legislature, Brandes has been a longtime advocate for some traditionally un-Republican issues, such as the legalization of medical marijuana for those who need it. He also led the charge for prison and criminal justice reform, questioning the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences.
Brandes is also a staunch supporter of cutting-edge technologies in Florida, both in the classroom, on roads, and in the everyday lives of citizens. He sponsored legislation for increased autonomous vehicle technology in the state and to develop digital driver’s licenses. Brandes also spearheaded the expansion of ride-sharing services statewide and pushed for the repeal of red light cameras.
From his first House victory in 2010, unseating incumbent Democrat Bill Heller by 999 votes, Brandes has won solid victories (or ran unopposed), with arguably one of the most organized campaigns structures in Pinellas County history.
Employing a robust ground game, strong fundraising and willingness to commit personal resources, Brandes defeated fellow House member Jim Frishe in the Senate race by more 14 percent. In 2014, he beat Democrat Judithanne McLauchlan by 13.9 percent in the general election and went unchallenged in 2016.
With a mix of demographics, organization and support, any Brandes challenger in SD 24 will find themselves facing a rough road — Democratic “blue wave” or not.