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DeSantis digs in on redistricting fight against fellow Republicans

Republicans in the Florida House and Senate have proposed a map that would largely preserve the political status quo, while DeSantis wants to boost prospects for congressional Republicans.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks in Daytona Beach on Nov. 22. Paul Hennessy / LightRocket via Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis is barreling toward an unusual showdown with Florida Republicans in a redistricting fight that centers on a largely Black congressional district.

Despite controlling both the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion, Republicans are at odds over how Florida’s 28 congressional districts should look over the next decade. The intra-party debate is focused on the 5th Congressional District — which is about 46 percent Black — which DeSantis wants to divide up into several GOP-leaning districts instead of one favoring Democrats.

“There’s a major difference, disagreement, between the governor and the Legislature and on [the 5th District], and so that’s going to be a huge stumbling block moving forward,” said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida. “And there’s a lot of pressure on DeSantis to show that he’s a true Republican looking out for national Republican interests.”

The battle lines were drawn last month when DeSantis, who is seeking re-election this year and is widely thought to be considering a 2024 run for president, injected himself into redistricting plans. He took the unorthodox step of proposing his own map even though state Senate Republicans had already released one that would essentially preserve the balance of political power, with 16 Republican-leaning and 12 Democratic-leaning congressional seats.

DeSantis’ map would add two more seats to the GOP column and subtract two from Democrats, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which gave the map an “F” in its redistricting report card. The state Senate map, meanwhile, earned a “B.”

Republicans in the state House held off on proposing their own map while DeSantis sought a legal opinion about whether state law required the 5th District to be kept whole. The state Supreme Court gave its answer Thursday, only to say it wouldn’t issue an opinion, noting that “the Governor’s request is broad and contains multiple questions that implicate complex federal and state constitutional matters and precedents interpreting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

But that was enough for state House Republicans to release a map of their own, one that would also keep intact the 5th District, in north Florida, where Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat who has represented the district since 2017, is seeking re-election.

DeSantis responded Friday by indicating he would veto any map that would keep the north Florida district whole.

The dispute is also in the spotlight because of how redistricting has played out in other states following the 2020 census results, which determine the sizes of congressional delegations. Republicans nationally have shored up gerrymandered advantages in states like Texas and Georgia, while Democrats secured some victories in states like New York. According to an analysis by the Cook Political Report, Democrats have netted two seats this election cycle.

Still, Florida state Republican lawmakers have shied from aggressively gerrymandering this year, in part because of the state Constitution’s “Fair Districts” amendments from 2010, which sought to improve political boundary lines by limiting gerrymandering.

“Florida has been a little bit of a surprise in that they didn’t go out of their way to do damage to Democrats,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Li said Florida Republicans likely held back because they felt “safe” — they enjoy majorities in the Legislature and the congressional delegation — and were loath to risk another multiyear court fight like the one that plagued the party in the first half of the previous decade after a map ran afoul of state laws.

But with Democrats making redistricting gains in New York and elsewhere, Florida’s map is drawing new attention.

Lawmakers will consider the House Republicans' plan on Friday, and again the following Thursday in committee meetings. The legislature is scheduled to end its session on March 11th.

Democrats, meanwhile, argue that the GOP fight is another sign that DeSantis is looking beyond Florida’s borders.

“He wants to weigh in on a congressional map because he wants to run for president,” said state Rep. Angie Nixon, of the Jacksonville area. “He is still our governor, and he needs to make sure that he’s working to improve the lives of all Floridians — not just a base.”