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Steve Schale: Florida state House rankings, May 2016

Six months before Election Day, now that the candidates and races are starting to develop, I wanted to take a look at my favorite of all subjects: state House races.

For those of you who don’t know me well, I cut my teeth in the Florida House. State House races are my first political love, and for young rising operatives, I believe them to be the best of all proving grounds. Almost everything you do running for president, governor, Congress, etc., you do running for the state House, just on a smaller scale.

There are a lot of fun races this year, with the Democrats largely playing offense — though many of their best shots are against incumbents, which is typically a tougher bet.

As you will see, of the 10 races profiled below, there is only one in the Democratic column. Some folks might think I am home-teaming this thing, but honestly, I could argue that one doesn’t belong there either, as it isn’t really at much risk and is included more for balance.

One other caveat: This is how I see these races today, but much can and will change. I am pretty sure if we checked with a group of Republican and Democratic strategists, you’d find consensus that the map will be fought on the GOP side this year.

I have ranked these seats in order of their likelihood to flip from one party to the other, with 10 being the least likely, to 1 being the most likely. So here goes:

10. HD 68 (Dudley Open): Dwight Dudley‘s surprise decision to retire from the House has created an open seat in traditionally one of the top battleground districts in Florida. The top of the ticket results would argue this seat is just barely a swing seat, though given both the Pinellas voter registration trends and the potential of a bruising Democratic primary, this seat barely makes the list. In three months, there is a good chance it will have fallen off.

9. HD 72 (Pilon Open): If Ray Pilon had run for re-election, this would be an honorable mention, but now that it is an open seat, it makes the first round of rankings. The Democratic candidate, Edward James, comes from an established Sarasota family and has raised a significant war chest. The Republican, Alex Miller, is formidable in her own right. Based on candidate quality alone, this should be higher up the list. However, the district is quite marginal for Democrats. Both Mitt Romney and Rick Scott won the seat by a few points, and given the older — and whiter — makeup of the seat, it is a place less likely to be impacted by Trump. Keep an eye on it, and ask me again in three months.

8. HD 69 (Peters Challenge): This is one of the “swingiest” of seats in one of the swingiest of counties (Pinellas), now held by Kathleen Peters. Both Obama and Charlie Crist won the seat by a few points, and there is no reason to think that Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton won’t have a similar outcome. The incumbent has played it smart, avoiding ideological pits, focusing on mental health as her primary issue. The Democratic candidate, Jennifer Webb, is a bit unknown at this point, hence this seat not being higher up the list. In three months this could be a real race, or it might not even be on this list. But given the makeup of the district, it will be one to watch.

7. HD 120 (Raschein Challenge): Two reasons this race makes the list: the district’s historical performance, and the problems Trump creates for all Republicans in South Florida. As a legislator in a vulnerable seat, Holly Raschein has done everything right. Full disclosure, she’s been a friend for many years (we were staff together in the House), thus, I hate even including her on this list. Objectively, she has one of the more bipartisan voting records in Tallahassee, works hard for her district, and she’s effectively scared off all top-tier opponents. But in her district, particularly in a presidential year, any opponent is a threat. Obama won the seat by six points, and with a good chunk of the district in heavily Hispanic South Dade, a Trump implosion with Hispanics could hurt her. I expect her to win, but she’s going to have to grind it out in a tough environment for her.

6. HD 47 (Miller Challenge): Like HD 30 — which isn’t even on the list at this point, this seat should be further up the list for Dems. The top of the ticket statewide for the Democrats has carried the seat in each of the last four elections, but at this point, no Democratic candidate has emerged as a top-tier challenger, and Mike Miller is sitting on $100K, which is a respectable number. However, the D’s won the seat easily in 2012 against a fairly formidable opponent, and Orlando is one of those places where Trump could create problems for Republicans. Miller starts with the edge, but can’t take anything for granted.

5. HD 59 (Spano Challenge): Ross Spano‘s opponent, Rena Frazier, is flat out one of the better recruits the Dems have had in years. The district is very much up for grabs at the top of the ticket, and voter registration is trending a bit Democratic. That being said, Spano is a heavyweight in his own right, well-liked and a hard worker. He won a four-way primary in his first race over opponents he was not supposed to beat. However, there is no question Rena is the best general election opponent he has faced. If Tom Lee runs for local office, and Spano takes a shot at the Senate, look for this one to move up the rankings.

4. HD 63 (Harrison Challenge): On paper, of the two GOP-held swing seats in Hillsborough, this one is definitely more favorable to the Democrats. Obama carried the seat by 5 to 6 points, and swept in Mark Danish over Harrison in 2012. This time around, he faces a better candidate in Lisa Montelione, a Tampa City Council member who has had a respectable early fundraising show, and a weaker GOP nominee in Trump. A GOP wave swept Shawn Harrison into office in 2010, out of office in 2012, back into office in 2014 … you get the idea. He’s generally carved out the kind of voting record you need in a seat like this, but to win, he has to buck the district’s recent history. If Tom Lee runs for the Senate, and Harrison takes his shot, this seat probably moves to No. 2 or No. 3 on this list.

3. HD 103 (Diaz Challenge): I don’t think there is a single Republican incumbent in the State House more hurt by Donald Trump than Manny Diaz Jr., who is legitimately one of the nicest guys in town. Going into re-election, he’s got three major problems: The seat is moving away from him — quickly, he’s running against one of the D’s better candidates, and Trump. Voter registration has trended away from Republicans, and this is the kind of seat where NPA voters lean Democratic — and that is before the Trump factor. He will have a ton of financial support, his race will be competently managed, and as a guy who cut his teeth in a district where we were called dead every cycle, I never count anyone out — and no one can count Diaz out either. But unless something changes, he clearly starts out as the most vulnerable incumbent.

2. HD 114 (Fresen Open): Always one of the better opportunities for Democrats, this open seat has quickly rocketed to the top, now that it is all but sure that Trump will be the GOP nominee. Both parties have top-tier candidates in this seat. Both parties will play heavily in this rare Dade County open swing seat. But the D’s have two major factors helping them: like all of Dade, this seat is trending Democratic — and Trump right now appears to be an anchor for Republicans with Hispanics. The Democratic candidate, Daisy Baez, put a real scare into Erik Fresen in 2014, which was a horrible year for Democrats. In a year where Clinton will likely beat Trump in Dade County by 30 or more points, Baez at this point is in an exceptionally strong position.

1. HD 49 (Coach P Open). With all due respect to Rene Plasencia (Coach P), who is the perfect Republican in this lean-Democratic seat, and who ran a near perfect campaign — this is not a seat the Democrats should have lost, even in 2014. Obama carried the seat in 2012 by roughly 20 points, and Crist easily defeated Scott. Coach P, a teacher and track coach, has decided to seek re-election in a neighboring seat, much more favorable to the Republicans. I honestly don’t think the GOP is even contesting this one. Unless something exceptionally odd happens, the Democratic candidate, my buddy Carlos Smith, will win this seat.

And here are a few that you should keep an eye on:

HD 30 (Cortes Challenge): If I had written this column six months ago, this seat, which has flipped from R to D to R in the last few cycles, would have been probably fifth or sixth on this list. It has all the makings of a battleground seat — central Florida, tight races at the top of the ticket, trending Hispanic, etc. But to date, Bob Cortes has fended off a top-tier opponent. Depending on what happens over the next three months, this will either move completely off or move into top-tier status.

HD 9 (Vasilinda Open): Some Republicans see this as a pickup opportunity, but I think this seat is far more competitive on paper than it is in reality. The top of the ticket Democrat has carried it by respectable margins, such as Crist, who won it by more than 10. The one blip: 2012, where Obama won the seat by a narrower 5 points. That being said, well-known and well-liked former state Rep. Loranne Ausley has filed, is absolutely killing it on fundraising. The GOP also has a good candidate, though not nearly as well-known as Loranne — nor as good as Peter Boulware, who failed to win the seat in 2008. Loranne alone is probably a 3- to 4-point boost on top of the seat’s Democratic performance. Plus, Loranne is an Ironman finisher — she knows how to work. By the numbers, it is one to watch, but I suspect Loranne wins by double digits.

HD 93 (Moratis Challenge): State Rep. George Moratis holds down the one red seat in Blue Broward. It is one of these seats that looks better on paper for Democrats than it is in reality, but this year he has drawn an interesting opponent, former Broward County Commissioner Ken Keechl. Keechl will have real name ID, and has a fundraising base. Romney won this seat in 2012, but I suspect this is a seat where Clinton should outperform Obama. In no way yet can you say Moratis is vulnerable, but that doesn’t mean he or the GOP can turn a blind eye to this race.

Almost every single Miami-Dade County Republican legislative seat: I have felt for several years that one day, on the Wednesday after the election, we will wake up and the Democrats will have won several seats in Miami-Dade County that no one saw coming. This might be the year. These incumbents all live in seats Obama either won or lost in narrow margins: Carlos TrujilloJose OlivaMichael BilecaFrank Artiles (Open), and Jeanette Nunez. In the other two, Bryan Avila and Pepe Diaz, the voter registration and presidential top of the ticket trend lines are working against the Republicans, though they are in far safer seats for Republicans than the other five. Right now, none of the above have Democratic candidates that merit inclusion on this list, though I have heard the Democrat getting into the Artiles open could be formidable. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention. In 2012, Jeff Soloman put a much closer than expected five-point scare into Bileca — and if the D’s had thrown a candidate into almost any of the other seats, Obama might have pulled another Mark Danish or Carl Zimmermann across the line. If Trump loses Dade by 30 points or more — which is extremely possible at this point — I would bet lunch that the wave carries one of the above to the Dem column.

Like everything in politics, this is all subject to change. I’ll take another stab at this after qualifying. In the meantime, if you have any thoughts or questions, please feel free to drop me a note

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