Florida Senate breaks with Gov. Ron DeSantis on congressional redistricting map

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The Senate advanced redrawn congressional and Senate boundaries Wednesday that would help Republicans maintain their dominance in the state, but ignored a proposal by Gov. Ron DeSantis that could send even more Florida GOP members to Washington.

The Senate passed the redrawn districts Thursday, a first step toward completing the once-a-decade task that is driven by population shifts revealed in the latest U.S. Census.

The maps advanced Wednesday by the Senate would create 16 Republican-leaning congressional seats to 12 for Democrats – not much of a change from the state’s current 16-11 split in the delegation.

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Florida is gaining a new seat in Congress – which the Senate plan would anchor mostly in Polk County, to reflect that the influx of 2.7 million residents over the past 10 years came mostly in the Interstate 4 corridor.

DeSantis adds clouds to redistricting horizon

While redistricting in the Senate has been clear sailing so far, DeSantis this week clouded the horizon.

His general counsel, Ryan Newman, submitted a congressional map Sunday that would favor Republican candidates in 18 of the state’s 28 congressional districts – but also reduce the state’s four black-oriented congressional districts to just two.

In DeSantis’ plan, U.S. Reps. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, and Val Demings, an Orlando Democrat now running for U.S. Senate against Republican Marco Rubio, would be in districts where the black majorities disappear.

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By contrast, the Senate congressional map keeps all four seats currently considered likely to elect a black member of Congress. Reapportionment Chair Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said his chamber is intent on complying with all state and federal laws guiding redistricting.

“Our responsibility in creating these maps is to assure that there is no retrogression,” said Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, chair of the Reapportionment Committee, referring to a redistricting plan’s watering down of a racial or ethnic minority’s voting strength.

“We are 100% confident that there is no retrogression with the map that we passed off the floor today. And we’re prepared to defend that map in court if necessary,” he added.

Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, is chair of the Senate Reapportionment Committee
Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, is chair of the Senate Reapportionment Committee

Control of Congress in play

Republicans nationally are eager to flip control of Congress away from Democrats. Florida’s GOP-led Legislature is getting some pressure to maximize the party’s chances of gaining new seats.

Still, the Senate appears eager to avoid a protracted legal challenge to Florida’s maps, which marred redistricting a decade ago and took three years to settle with courts drawing state Senate and congressional plans in 2015.

DeSantis, though, may be more inclined to fight.

DeSantis’ map was released shortly after a Twitter account linked to former President Trump advisor Steve Bannon urged conservative supporters to call the governor’s office because “we need five more MAGA seats in Florida,” citing the “make America great again” theme.

While reducing black-performing districts, the governor’s proposal would boost the number of Hispanic-leaning seats to five – from their current four.

The congressional plan the Senate is set to approve Thursday keeps the number of Hispanic-access districts at four. But the governor’s five-seat proposal is troubled by having two districts where experts say the Hispanic population is not large enough to assure that a candidate of their choice is elected.

Read full statement from DeSantis' office on governor's redistricting proposal.

U.S. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart hosted a roundtable on Cuba at the Los Angeles Adult Day Care in Collier County on Aug. 10, 2021.
U.S. Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart hosted a roundtable on Cuba at the Los Angeles Adult Day Care in Collier County on Aug. 10, 2021.

Spanning coasts

One of these districts is held by U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who, along with losing most his Hispanic voters, would likely face running in a district that combines part of heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County with decidedly Anglo areas of Collier County.

Unlike with the maps created for state Senate or House districts, Florida’s governor has authority to veto a congressional plan. So his support for the contours of the congressional map is critical.

The state House hasn’t yet advanced a map. And even though the Senate appears to be distancing itself from the DeSantis plan, the House could rely more on the governor’s proposal when it advances its own congressional map in coming days.

The House and Senate are expected to agree on new House, Senate and congressional boundaries before the session’s scheduled finish on March 11.

With so much focus on the congressional plan, the Senate’s rewrite of its own boundaries was overshadowed.

Senate doesn’t change much

But the partisan balance wouldn’t likely shift much with the map poised for Thursday’s vote.

In a Senate where Republicans now control 24 seats in the 40-member chamber, the boundaries being advanced include 23 districts where former President Donald Trump beat Democratic President Joe Biden last fall and a Republican would be considered favored.

The state Senate map creates five Black-oriented districts and five likely to elect Hispanic senators – levels unchanged from those created in the state’s current boundaries.

But it’s only the congressional map that has caught the governor’s attention.

“We have legal concerns with the congressional redistricting maps under consideration in the Legislature,” Newman said in a statement. “We have submitted an alternative proposal, which we can support, that adheres to federal and state requirements and addresses our legal concerns, while working to increase district compactness, minimize county splits where feasible, and protect minority voting populations.”

DeSantis’ plan would seem to meet the definition of retrogression when it comes to minority representation.
DeSantis’ plan would seem to meet the definition of retrogression when it comes to minority representation.

“Because the governor must approve any congressional map passed by the Legislature, we wanted to provide our proposal as soon as possible and in a transparent manner,” he added.

DeSantis’ plan, though, would seem to meet the definition of retrogression when it comes to minority representation, a backward movement that may violate both the federal Voting Rights Act and the state’s Fair Districts constitutional requirements, which prohibit districts from being drawn intentionally to help or hurt incumbents or a party.

A Texas-styled fight?

In Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott is – like DeSantis – viewed as a potential Republican presidential contender in 2024, lawmakers also approved congressional and legislative maps that reduced the number of districts with black or Hispanic majorities.

President Biden’s Justice Department sued Texas last month and is asking a federal court to block the use of these maps in the state’s March primaries.

DeSantis could be tempting a similar confrontation with the Biden administration, which Florida has already sued four times over vaccine mandates and immigration policy.

John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at jkennedy2@gannett.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' redistricting plan left behind

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