Political watchers in Hillsborough County expect the 2022 election cycle to be another potentially difficult year for Democrats in the Legislature.
Speaking during a Tampa Tiger Bay virtual forum, local political reporters and strategists from both major political parties pointed to the redistricting process that will occur ahead of the 2022 elections, led by a Republican Legislature that now has a bigger majority than before redistricting.
Republican strategist and Hillsborough County State Committeewoman-elect April Schiff all but admitted the GOP wants to ensure the process benefits them.
Spectrum Bay News 9 reporter Mitch Perry suggested that redrawn districts in Hillsborough County could leave House District 63, currently held by Democrat Fentrice Driskell facing no Republican opposition this year, untouched in favor of making House District 59 more favorable to Republicans. Former Rep. Adam Hattersley and now Rep. Andrew Learned, both Democrats, won the seat in 2018 and this year.
“Hopefully, when we do the redistricting, we don’t give any to them,” Schiff responded.
The panel, which also included Tampa Bay Times reporter William March, WFLA anchor Evan Donovan and Democratic consultant Maya Brown, convened to discuss the 2020 election’s implications on Hillsborough County politics.
While all agreed this year saw big wins for local Democrats, they acknowledged it was a bad night overall for the party, which lost five seats in the Florida House and two Congressional seats based in South Florida.
Asked whether or not Democrats could translate their local success this year into gains in 2022 in the legislature, all envisioned a tough road ahead.
“Democrats are going to be wandering around in the wilderness in Tallahassee for another decade,” March mused, citing the redistricting process.
Brown, who works to elect Democrats, similarly saw challenges ahead but saw a path for her party to do better, including improving the party’s voter outreach efforts. She said this cycle saw missed opportunities to turn out more voters through early voting. While the Party dominated mail ballots this cycle, Republicans statewide bridged an initial turnout lead with early voting.
She also said the party has work to do identifying and recruiting quality candidates for the 2022 cycle.
With the 2020 election results determined, Democrats now hold a 5-2 majority on the Hillsborough County Commission, with Commissioner Pat Kemp holding onto her District 6 seat despite a well-funded challenge from former Commissioner Sandra Murman. Former Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen won Murman’s old seat over his Republican challenger. Meanwhile, Democrat Gwen Myers easily kept District 3, formerly held by Les Miller, in the blue column. Democrats previously held a 4-3 majority.
All of the reporters on the panel agreed Hillsborough County is now solidly blue. But Schiff said local losses this cycle, particularly Murman’s, will motivate the GOP to reclaim the advantages they held in the 90s when the county was much redder.
She cautioned GOP voters about the consequences of this election locally, warning of increased taxes and a step away from new development.
The only two remaining Republican Commissioners are on the ballot in 2022 — Ken Hagan in District 2 and Stacy White in District 4.
Perry doesn’t see a power shift in two years. Instead, he said he’d be watching to see whether Democrats could oust yet another Republican from the seven-member board. He said White is likely safe in his East Hillsborough district, historically friendly to Republican candidates. Hagan’s north county district would also be a tough climb for Democrats, but more doable than White’s. Democrats hold a more than 5,000 voter advantage in Hagan’s district, while Republicans hold a more than 10,000 voter advantage in White’s.
Panelists also addressed the future of vote by mail both locally and statewide, noting the unprecedented mail turnout this cycle as voters looked to avoid in-person voting amid a global pandemic.
They anticipate a continued shift toward a vote by mail, a trend that was increasing even before the COVID-19 crisis; they also expect some return to in-person balloting.
March noted that despite calls by Republicans this year to avoid mail voting and claims that it was ripe for fraud, an argument now playing out as President Donald Trump continues to contest election outcomes in a handful of states based on fraud claims, it was the GOP who first pushed vote by mail hard in Florida more than a decade ago.
“They found it’s an extremely good voter turnout mechanism,” he said.
That’s because vote by mail allows both parties to see, almost in real-time, how many in their party have already turned out for an election. That information is useful to follow up with those voters to ensure they return their ballots and, for those who already have, avoid costly voter outreach, freeing up resources to reach still available voters.
Perry speculated that GOP voters, largely due to Trump’s ongoing election challenges, may return to in-person voting in higher numbers than Democrats.
Also addressed was whether the presidential election and claims from Trump and his supporters that the media influenced the election, is giving more fire to the argument over fake news.
“The media has always played a very large part in the political process,” Schiff said, arguing media transformation into a 24-hour news cycle has led to a new breed of journalists.
She said journalists, in some instances, have shifted from unbiased reporting to picking winners and losers. She also lamented reporters who are quick to call out misinformation.
“Don’t tell me that it’s false; tell me what they did and let me decide (if it’s false),” she said.
Not surprisingly, the reporters on the panel all decried the concept of fake news and its danger to democracy.
“You can’t run away from news just because you don’t agree with it,” Donavan said, arguing the concept of fake news has turned into a tag for any news coverage people find disagreeable to their opinions. Simply put, Donovan argued, not agreeing with information doesn’t make it any less real.