Attacking the GOP Firewall in Tallahassee

Election Day 2018 is right around the corner and the eyes of many across America will be looking to Florida as a bellwether for the 2020 presidential election. There are good reasons for this. Florida has some compelling races that promise to be everything Americans claim to hate about their politics: Expensive, deeply partisan and nasty!

Some of the big Election Day lead-up questions are: Can three-term Democratic Senator Bill Nelson hold onto his seat against term-limited Republican Governor Rick Scott? Will Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum be able to defeat Donald Trump’s “Bing Bing” candidate, now-former Congressman Ron DeSantis, to become Florida’s first African-American governor? Will the outcome of competitive congressional races, such as Congressional District 6, between Nancy Soderberg and Michael Waltz, factor large in whether the GOP is able to maintain control of Congress? And, in Northeast Florida, who will win the looming slugfest in House District 15, between Democrat Tracye Polson and Republican Wyman Duggan? Few, if any, state house races across the nation will see as much money and resources allocated as this one. Yet even if the Blue Wave were to become a tsunami, it’s no mystery that Republicans will still control the Florida House of Representatives. Why?

Republicans hold a whopping 75-41 advantage in the Florida House. In a state that Barack Obama won twice, the GOP has built an impenetrable firewall over two decades of unabashedly partisan gerrymandering–so partisan that Floridians overwhelmingly passed the Fair District Amendments in 2010. Even after the Florida Constitution was amended to ensure competitive elections, it’s taken several legal challenges, most recently from Common Cause and The League of Women Voters of Florida, to force the GOP to acquiesce to the will of the people. If the Democrats ever hope to break through this firewall and wrestle control of the legislature away from the GOP, the Florida Democratic Party needs to win in districts considered solidly Republican. A good example is in Jacksonville, and it’s not District 15. It’s District 16, the contest between incumbent Republican Jason Fischer and Democrat Ken Organes.

The District 16 race has the feel of a classic election upset. Organes, a retiree who worked at CSX for 32 years, was an active community volunteer until he became frustrated by the current political discourse. Energized through his involvement in the Duval County Democratic Party, Organes decided to run for office. On the stump, no one will confuse Organes’ oratory with that of Andrew Gillum’s. He has made school funding and school safety his top legislative priorities. Yet his sincerity connects with those he meets and his ideas are at the heart of Democratic values: Education, opportunity and equality. Organes has raised $41,000, mostly from nearly 200 small-dollar donations contributed by regular people who live in his district.

Fischer, a one-term state representative, has been running for public office since his mid-20s. In fact, in 2012, Fischer became the youngest person ever elected to the Duval School Board. In GOP circles, he’s thought to have a bright future; he’s Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s protégé. His affiliation with Curry helped him collect nearly $200,000 by Labor Day, all from major Florida GOP donors and corporate PACs. In a largely Republican district with a conservative voting record, Fischer would appear to be on track to pursue higher office in the near future with an agenda that mirrors the national Republican agenda: Lower taxes, create jobs, gut Obamacare … and repeat.

So can Organes beat Fischer? The common wisdom would say no. Fischer has a 5-to-1 cash-on-hand advantage and the ability to raise far more if things get sticky. Fischer has an A rating from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and NRA. District 16 is largely white and performs strongly Republican, despite a healthy amount of No Party Affiliation voters. In fact, Organes would need to get nearly three-quarters of the NPA votes in the district to balance the Republican registration advantage. So what is the case for Organes? There are a couple of reasons for genuine Democratic optimism.

First, at the ripe old age of 34, Fischer is already a career politician with a record. This includes supporting the privatization of Florida’s beaches, propping up Jacksonville’s KIPP Charter Schools with millions of taxpayer dollars, voting against debating an assault weapons ban, while students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gasped in the House Gallery, and voting against increasing the minimum age to purchase semi-automatic assault weapons to 21. While Fischer wears his NRA “A” rating as a badge of honor, Organes will make that badge the proverbial scarlet letter for someone beholden to the gun manufacturers’ lobby. Fischer’s voting record gives Organes the opportunity to reintroduce Fischer to his own constituents and create a clear contrast.

Second, this election is being held with the backdrop of a truth-averse sitting President of the United States in the throes of a Nixonian-like meltdown. What will be Donald Trump’s fate by Nov. 6? Republicans who have attached themselves to Trump like remora on a great white will suffer from his demise. The greater the attachment, the worse the trickle-down effect.

In the past, Fischer has had trouble with alternative facts. In his race for Duval County School Board, his campaign website claimed for months he was a Navy engineer when, in fact, he was a civilian employee who never served in the military. This was well-covered by The Florida Times-Union, yet Fischer still won his race in an upset. Regardless of such missteps and the Trump dumpster fire, Fischer will overwhelmingly win the majority of Republican votes. But how much of that vote will stay home? One can assume the smaller Democratic voting base will be greatly energized. But energized how? District 16 residents have not had a chance to vote for a Democratic candidate since the 2007 Special Election.

The race in District 15 is certainly worthy of the statewide and national attention it will receive in the fall. Tracye Polson is a dynamic candidate who connects with voters. Wyman Duggan performed well in a contested primary. He’s popular in the local GOP establishment and, though he’s temporarily short on funds, he’ll get major support from the same sources backing Fischer, namely the Lenny Curry machine.

Firewalls must be attacked to be breached. If the balance of power in Tallahassee is going to change, Democrats must aggressively fight for every seat to capitalize on a Republican party in pandemonium. This means not only competing in races like House District 16, but investing in them and winning them.


Cronrath is a political science professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville.


Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that Jason Fischer was a Navy civilian contractor.