What swing state Florida's midterm races can tell us about the rest of the country

Key Points
  • Florida plays host to key Senate, House and statewide races in Tuesday's midterm elections.
  • The swing state has always been an important bellwether, and could provide some early clues into the national mood on Tuesday night.
  • Since local issues and specific candidates have a large role in race outcomes, Florida's results may not fully capture what happens nationwide as the major parties jockey for control of Congress and several key governor's offices.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama (C) campaigns for Democrats, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (R) and and Gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum in Miami, Florida, U.S. November 2, 2018. 
Joe Skipper | Reuters

Even for a state that has previously decided presidential elections, Florida has drawn considerable attention and cash in this year's midterm elections.

Eyes will turn to the Sunshine State early on Tuesday, when polls across Florida will close before voting ends in several other pivotal states. The outcome of races there may offer some clues about how the fight for control of Congress will play out across the country.

The governor's race in Florida, the third most populous U.S. state, has sparked national media attention, as it pits an unabashed progressive against a conservative who supports President Donald Trump's agenda. But the intrigue extends well beyond the contest between Democrat Andrew Gillum and Republican Ron DeSantis.

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The Florida Senate race, between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Gov. Rick Scott, will not only play a major role in which party controls the Senate, but also will end as easily the most expensive contest of the midterms.

In addition, at least six Florida House races are considered competitive, and some of the GOP-held districts that Democrats will try to flip in the state are similar to other suburban battleground areas around the country.

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"Florida tends to be reflective of the country in the sense that Florida is largely a collection of people from around the country. The results you see here look a lot like what you in the areas where people come from," said Steven Schale, a strategist who led President Barack Obama's winning campaign to win Florida in 2008, and advised on his 2012 re-election bid in the state.

Of course, Florida cannot predict large parts of the national political environment. Local issues, the appeal of specific candidates and numerous other factors on the ground will determine the outcome of races across the country.

Still, Florida can provide some early clues in what is expected to be a night filled with drama and close contests. It can also offer a view into how some states that the president won narrowly in 2016 will react to him at the ballot box two years later.

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Polls in most of Florida will close at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday, with some red-leaning parts of the Panhandle that sit in Central time closing an hour later. Results will start coming in a bit earlier than in other high-stakes states such as Pennsylvania.

In a state that supported Trump after backing Obama twice, the major parties have realized the importance of energizing their bases. Obama held a rally in Miami on Friday for Gillum, Nelson and House candidates, saying that Tuesday "might be the most important election of our lifetimes." Trump rallied in the state Saturday night for the second time this week, as he aims to boost his ally DeSantis.

In the race to represent the state of more than 20 million as governor, observers see a test of the country's future. Gillum, Florida's first black gubernatorial nominee who has served as mayor of Tallahassee, has pushed for Medicaid expansion, tighter gun restrictions, and supports Trump's impeachment.

DeSantis, a former congressman who won the GOP gubernatorial primary with a big boost from Trump, has aligned himself with the president on cracking down on immigration, and repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.

While the gubernatorial race has huge stakes for Florida's future, the House and Senate races will give better clues of what could happen in congressional races nationwide on Tuesday. Nelson is one of 10 Senate Democrats running in a state Trump won in 2016, and finds himself locked in a tight race with Scott. The two campaigns and outside groups supporting them have spent a staggering $180 million on the race, driven by Scott's personal $50 million investment in his Senate bid.

Schale said that in each recent election cycle, "where the country broke late is where Florida landed." Therefore, he said he would be "surprised" if Nelson wins but other Senate Democrats in tight races — such as Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Joe Donnelly in Indiana — lose.

Republicans hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, and are currently favored to maintain or increase their advantage in the chamber. If the 65-year-old Scott, denies the 76-year-old Nelson a fourth term, it would bode well for the GOP's prospects nationwide.

Meanwhile, Democrats will try to flip several House districts in the Sunshine State, as they push to gain a net 23 GOP-held seats nationwide and win a majority in the chamber. Nonpartisan forecasters favor Democrats to win Florida's Miami-area 27th District, in a closer than expected race for a Republican-held seat in a district that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 20 percentage points in 2016.

Nonpartisan analysts differ on their ratings for Florida's other competitive House races. But Democrats will try to unseat Republicans in the following districts:

  • Florida 26: Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo aims to defend Florida's southernmost congressional seat against Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. The district also voted for Clinton. Along with the 27th District, it is considered a test of how well Democrats can mobilize Hispanic voters. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report considers it a toss-up, while the nonpartisan Sabato's Crystal Ball lists it as lean Republican.
  • Florida 15: The district on the eastern outskirts of Tampa is open due to GOP Rep. Dennis Ross's retirement. Republican Ross Spano and Democrat Kristen Carlson vie for the seat. Like the 26th District, Cook puts the 15th in the toss-up category and Sabato rates it as lean Republican.
  • Florida 6: The coastal district south of Jacksonville has no incumbent, due to DeSantis's bid for governor. Republican Michael Waltz faces off with Democrat Nancy Soderberg. Both Cook and Sabato's put it in the lean Republican category.
  • Florida 18: Republican Rep. Brian Mast aims to win re-election in the southeastern Florida seat about halfway between Orlando and Miami. He faces off against Democrat Lauren Baer in a contest that both Cook and Sabato rate as lean Republican.
  • Florida 16: Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan faces Democratic challenger David Shapiro to defend the seat south of Tampa. Cook puts the race in its lean Republican category, while Sabato considers it likely Republican.

Predicting results of House races in different parts of the country can be difficult, given the array of local issues that drive results. Still, Schale thinks that if any candidates from the group of Baer, Soderberg and Carlson triumph, it could mean Democrats are "having a very good night" in the suburban districts they need to flip to take a House majority.

At the same time, difficulties for House Democratic candidates in flipping GOP-held Florida seats could portend problems in the party's bid for a majority.

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