Politics & Government

Florida’s clout on Capitol Hill to grow

WASHINGTON -- Florida will have two more members of Congress in 2012, with 2010 Census figures showing a surge in the state’s population, boosting its influence in Congress and giving it more clout in the race for the White House.

The two new seats, announced Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau, will bring Florida’s representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives to 27 -- the same number of congressional seats as New York, which lost two seats as part of a decades-long population migration from the Northeast and Midwest to the South and the West.

Only Democratic-leaning California and reliably Republican Texas will be bigger presidential prizes when it comes to Electoral College votes, though neither state has been considered an up-for-grabs, presidential battleground state like Florida, which George W. Bush won by just 537 votes in 2000 and which went for Barack Obama in 2008.

“Already a ‘must win state’ for presidential candidates, Florida becomes even more important,” said state Sen. Don Gaetz, the Destin Republican who will lead one of the state legislature’s redistricting committees which will redraw congressional maps before the 2012 election.

The creation of seats -- often a chaotic political and legal fight -- is likely to be further complicated by two voter-approved state constitutional amendments that create strict rules for how politicians can draw district maps. Republicans largely opposed the amendments and are challenging them in court and Democrats Tuesday cautioned the Republican-controlled Legislature to stick to the changes. The amendments, which are aimed at creating more compact districts, call for districts to be drawn that neither help nor hurt political parties.

Data provided by U.S. Census Bureau.

“It is important to remember that the people of Florida have spoken when voters overwhelmingly passed the Fair District Amendments,” Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux said. “Floridians of all parties can look forward to districts that truly reflect their communities and representation that reflects the diversity of our great state, rather than the partisan gerrymandering that best describes the current districts.”

Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos didn’t mention the amendments, but promised transparency.

“This will be a deliberative process and all Floridians will have a voice,” Haridopolos said.

Across the U.S., 12 seats shifted in the 435-seat House, reflecting a drift in population to the South and West. The numbers are largely viewed as a boost for Republicans -- with Texas picking up four seats, for example.

The state Legislature will decide where to put Florida’s new seats, with a potential nod to the Orlando area where growth has been faster than any other region. Some analysts suggest a second seat in southwest Florida, or north of Tampa. More detailed, neighborhood level data will be released by the Census Bureau early next year.

Democrats in Florida suggest Republicans in the state may have a difficult time creating more GOP districts in a state where Democrats lead in voter registration.

“It’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having, but it’s going to be tough,” Democratic strategist Steve Schale said of the opportunity to draw two new seats. “I would be surprised if they try to do two Republican seats. You could do it in the short term, but it comes at great peril in the long term.”

Republican strategist David “D.J.” Johnson noted there will be no shortage of competing forces: from state lawmakers who may be interested in creating seats for themselves to members of Congress who will want to protect their own districts -- often by pinching friendly voters from other districts.

“We got new seats in 2000 I bemoaned then that although you get two new seats, you get no new land, so you’ve got to force seats where you can,” said Johnson, who was executive director of the Republican Party of Florida during the last post-census redistricting. “There’s a lot of confusion and chaos, and now there’s two new amendments.”

The GOP now holds 19 of Florida’s 25 congressional seats and Johnson noted that not all are GOP strongholds.

For example, the Broward/Palm Beach district that Republican Allen West recently won by defeating Democrat Ron Klein was redrawn after the 2000 census to benefit Republicans, but now is closely split between the parties. Both sides will be watching that seat and others like it because any changes to either include or exclude voters of either party could make a difference at the ballot box.

The numbers have implications beyond the political. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke noted that the results will be used to allocate more than $400 billion in annual federal aid for education, services for seniors, law enforcement and transportation.

And Locke said that businesses will use the data to identify new markets and areas to invest.

“Much is riding on the results we announce today,” Locke said. “The 2010 Census will serve as a backbone for our political and economic system for years to come.”

Florida’s official population as of April 1 -- Census Day -- was pegged at 18,801,310 -- an increase of 17.6 percent -- or 2,818,932 people -- over the past 10 years. Florida’s growth -- despite the housing crisis -- outpaced overall growth in the South, which was the fastest in the country at 14.3 percent. Just seven states, including Nevada -- at 35.1 percent with the nation’s largest rate of population growth -- had larger gains than Florida.

But it’s nothing compared to the state’s boom years -- between 1950 and 1960, Florida grew at a rate of 78.7 percent.

Herald staff writer Amy Sherman contributed to this report.