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DeSantis draws congressional map that would dramatically expand GOP’s edge in Florida

The proposed map would carve up a largely Black district and eliminate Democratic gains made on a national level during the redistricting process.
Image: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2021.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis proposed a new congressional map that would create four more Republican-leaning districts and wipe out Democrats' national redistricting advantage.

The map — which would carve up a Black-held district — was released Wednesday afternoon, just days after state legislators said they would defer to DeSantis, a Republican, on the new congressional boundaries. The Republican-controlled Legislature drew maps that would have created less of a GOP advantage, but DeSantis vetoed them last month.

DeSantis' map would create 20 Republican seats and eight Democratic ones based on 2020 electoral data, according to Matthew Isbell, a leading Florida-based Democratic data consultant who analyzed the maps Wednesday evening. Florida’s congressional delegation consists of 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats in the House. The state was apportioned an additional House seat after the 2020 census.

“It’s so blatantly partisan,” Isbell said. “The only way you can create a 20-and-8 map ... was to basically say, ‘Screw Black representation.’”

A top Republican in the Legislature agreed privately, saying the maps were probably drawn with partisan intent by DeSantis — a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate who is up for re-election this year.

DeSantis has said his administration is complying with the law, which prohibits partisan gerrymandering.

Court challenges appear inevitable, but there is little time to change the map before the August primaries in the lead-up to the November midterm elections.

Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida who studies elections, said DeSantis appeared to be inviting lawsuits. The map "is clearly being drawn to challenge the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court has not struck down," he said.

Despite controlling significantly less of the redistricting process nationally, Democrats had managed to cobble together some gains in states like New York this year. According to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, Democrats have so far netted 1.5 seats while eliminating 1.5 Republican seats nationally.

While the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature had advanced maps that would have slightly advantaged Republicans, DeSantis sought significant gains for his party; in particular, he demanded that legislators dismantle largely Black congressional districts and argued that the North Florida district that ran from Tallahassee to Jacksonville, represented by Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.

"We are not going to have a 200-mile gerrymander that divvies up people based on the color of their skin," DeSantis said Tuesday at a news conference in Miami. "That is wrong. That's not the way we've governed in the state of Florida. And obviously that will be litigated."

DeSantis' map would dissolve the seat, the state's 5th Congressional District, into several Republican districts. It would also water down the African American voting population in another district with a significant number of Black voters, currently represented by Senate candidate Val Demings of Orlando. That would leave the state with just one majority Black voting district.

In private moments, Republicans familiar with DeSantis’ map say they're uncomfortable with the way he proposed eliminating Lawson's seat. And they think the map probably runs afoul of Florida’s prohibition on partisan gerrymandering because of how DeSantis drew the Tampa Bay-area 13th District — a swing seat held by Democrat Charlie Crist in the Pinellas County city of St. Petersburg.

DeSantis’ map would make the district more Republican-leaning by removing voters from Democratic areas of St. Petersburg and shipping them across the bay to the Tampa-based 14th District, which covers more of Hillsborough County.

In the last round of redistricting a decade ago, Republicans tried the same maneuver by shifting voters from Democratic areas of St. Petersburg to Tampa. But the state Supreme Court stopped them, ruling that it was evidence of intentional partisan gerrymandering. The court essentially forbade lawmakers from crossing Tampa Bay.

“None of the Legislature’s maps did this, and there’s a reason for this: The courts told us you can’t, and they said we can’t because it’s for partisan purposes,” said a top Republican involved in the redistricting effort.

“If DeSantis wants to go to court and defend this, I hope he doesn’t mind getting deposed,” the Republican said.

Under the Fair Districts constitutional amendments that Florida voters approved in 2010, legislators are forbidden to draw districts that intentionally favor or disfavor incumbents or parties.

Asked Tuesday what he’s doing to ensure that the law is followed, DeSantis deferred to his legal team.

“Everything’s been done by our legal office and attorneys and all that,” he said. “I mean, the people that were involved will go and testify in front of the Legislature about the product that was created.”

Legislative leaders are likely to rubber-stamp the new map because DeSantis has already vetoed their proposals and told them he wants his version with minimal or no changes, according to Republicans familiar with the dynamics in the state Capitol. In addition, DeSantis has sky-high approval ratings with Republican voters, rivaling or surpassing those of former President Donald Trump in some polls, and the Republicans who run the Legislature are keenly aware of his power.

Senate President Wilton Simpson is leaving office because of term limits and running for the statewide post of agriculture commissioner. Republican insiders say he wants DeSantis’ endorsement and that he has no desire to cross DeSantis.

“Why would you want to upset the leader of the party?” asked Jamie Miller, a former executive director of the state Republican Party. “I don’t know if it has as much to do with the endorsement as the fact that, if you’re on the ticket running with the governor, you’re going to want to do things like travel, be on stage with him and be on mail with him.”

Miller said he believes DeSantis' map is legal and that the existing congressional districts were unfairly drawn to advantage Democrats by a Democratic-leaning state Supreme Court, which is now solidly Republican.

At his news conference in Miami with Simpson on Tuesday, DeSantis was coy when he was asked why he hadn’t yet endorsed Simpson.

“Look,” DeSantis said as the audience chuckled, “we’ve got some more work to do.”