FL's Redistricting could pit Republicans against fellow Republicans

By JOHN KENNEDY
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE — When Florida voters swept Republicans to record-level super majorities in the legislature and congressional delegation last fall, the bulked-up GOP looked like it had little to fear from shrinking Democrats.

But now Florida's elected Republicans may face a new threat: fellow Republicans.

With redistricting on the horizon, the state GOP will be hard-pressed to sustain the robust numbers put up last fall, party loyalists acknowledge, adding that they also fear next year's elections could turn into a cutthroat game of musical chairs for many Republican office holders.

Some incumbents could be forced to square off in primary contests, while others are pushed into districts not favoring their re-election. Palm Beach County is ground zero for some of the Republican Party's most troublesome districts.

"There's a likelihood the numbers can drop," said Marc Reichelderfer, a Tallahassee lobbyist and Republican campaign consultant. "2010 was a great year. But can you keep everybody? I don't know."

GOP gains last fall left the party commanding 109 of the legislature's 160 seats, and 19 of the state's 25 congressional districts. The numbers are even more stunning considering that Democrats hold a 600,000-voter edge statewide over Republicans.

With a presidential contest topping the ballot in 2012, voter turnout next year is certain to climb from 2010, a shift expected to generally help Democrats, those in both parties say.

But the once-a-decade redrawing of political lines early next year also will prove key to whether Republicans retain their iron grip in Florida.

Possible rivalries loom

Already, U.S. Reps. Allen West of Plantation and Tom Rooney of Tequesta look like they're on a collision course over the Republican-leaning voting precincts in Palm Beach County. Rooney's eight-county District 16 and West's two-county District 22 both include some now, but they probably will be retooled.

State Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a former Wellington village councilwoman, has begun renting a home in Fort Myers, perhaps a sign of where she sees her political future heading after her district is redrawn, a process lawmakers will begin in January.

But there, Benacquisto already faces a fellow Republican legislator, Rep. Trudi Williams of Fort Myers, who has filed to run for the Senate seat.

A rivalry looks looming.

"Gosh, I hope I don't have to run against her," Williams said of Benacquisto. "But I've been in Lee County a long time. Wasn't she a city councilwoman in Palm Beach County?"

Benacquisto, though, said she didn't want to talk about how new district boundaries might fall. But she also doesn't look ready to take chances, either, having raised $239,325, one of the highest totals among Senate candidates.

"I just think the best way to serve the people of this district is to be on both coasts," Benacquisto said of her two homes.

An additional level of uncertainty stems from new voter-approved constitutional amendments designed to guide redistricting. The "Fair Districts" provisions are designed to minimize party politics when congressional and legislative districts are drawn.

"We called that idea 'square districts,' because that's basically what they'd create," said state Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, who has filed to run in Rooney's district.

"I've told Tom Rooney, 'I'm not going to run against you,' but there's no way his district is going to survive the way it is," Kreegel said.

Amendments 5 and 6 require that district lines be contiguous and compact, shaped largely by city, county and geographic boundaries. The amendments, pushed by Democratic -allied organizations, were aimed at blunting ruling Republicans' ability to draw wide-ranging districts to help incumbents or the party's candidates.

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