Can District 72 Swing?

Under The Hood

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY AUG 26, 2017

News that Alex Miller would resign her state House seat and prompt a special election had Gulf Coast Democrats salivating enough to merit a slip-and-fall hazard warning. Why? Miller represents about the closest thing to a swing district in the region, and with President Trump holding record-low approval ratings, this odd-year election creates the rare chance to win a seat that by normal metrics they “should” lose.

Of course, blue hearts have broken here before. What would it actually take to compete District 72? That question warrants an instant “Where The Votes Are” analysis, one looking exclusively at party make-up and voter enthusiasm in recent elections.

Some background. Democrats and Republicans (Shirley Brown, Donna Clarke, Keith Fitzgerald, Ray Pilon) alternately represented this area through the late ‘90s and 2000s, but the seat in 2012 was redrawn by the Legislature to lean more Republican. When Miller ran for the open seat in November, she won in a landslide against Democrat Ed James III, with 58.1 percent of the vote.

But was that election the norm? Not really. First, 2016 was a presidential election and Trump won Florida, so every Republican sharing the ballot enjoyed some lift. Second, James in the final weeks of the campaign suffered an Access Hollywood-caliber sex scandal that led his own party to withdraw its endorsement. The climate’s a little different now, with an unpopular Republican president casting a shadow on all political stories (including this one). While he elevated party members in November, he weighs them down now. Turnout in a special election will also surely be low, so the enthusiasm of the base will be what decides a victor.

That said, Republicans already have a strong frontrunner, James Buchanan, the son of a popular congressman and someone who already raised $163,000 to run in 2018 (albeit in a different district). The coffer and name recognition give so significant an edge that Republican Party of Sarasota chairman Joe Gruters considers Buchanan the prohibitive nominee. Democrats, meanwhile, will have multiple candidates jump in, which will raise their profile but deplete resources.

This still looks like a tough race for Democrats based on the numbers alone. Republicans in District 72 today outnumber Democrats by 12,380 votes, a gap that represents 10 percent of the potential electorate. They also turned out at a markedly better rate than Democrats in November, and worst of all, it appears that nonpartisan and third-party voters also broke three-to-two for Miller.

Of course, a November sample isn’t representative of a special election electorate, but Republicans also enjoyed better turnout in the district during the August 2016 primary, when more than 30 percent of Republicans now registered voted, but just 29 percent of Democrats did the same. Of course, there weren’t any major statewide primaries. And Miller had a primary opponent last year (John Hill) while James did not. Maybe we should call turnout a wash, but that still means Republicans outnumbers Dems at the polls by more than 4,000.

There is good news for Democrats, though, when you look at the subset of District 72 voters who participated in the technically-nonpartisan-but-hahahaha Sarasota city election in May. About 15,000 city voters live in this district, and of those most are Democrats. More significant, in the city race, Democrats outperformed Republicans in terms of turnout, and likely won over many of the GOP voters there. Team Blue painted the lone Republican in the race as a mini-Trump and destroyed him at the polls. Sure, municipal turnout remained anemic, but Dems ran away with what little vote was there and the special election turnout will be anemic as well.

Yet, District 72 isn’t deep blue municipal Sarasota. Any sober look at the numbers still gives the edge to the GOP, and Republicans boast a tremendous outreach in Sarasota County. But could this district swing? Absolutely. This will be an expensive race watched statewide, and Democrats are right to think the contest can be won by the right candidate in a political environment that makes it hard to run red.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor to SRQ Media Group.

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