TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - As Florida prepares to add a 28th congressional seat and the major parties get ready to fight for control of the U.S. House, new census data shows the country's fastest-growing metropolitan area is a popular retirement area that is overwhelmingly Republican — just like the state Legislature.
How The Villages influences the shaping of Florida's new congressional maps will start to become clearer when lawmakers meet to begin poring over the data next month — most likely with an eye to making the new seat a Republican one.
Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2010 that requires new political maps to be drawn so they don't benefit a specific party. The Legislature drew maps a year later that lawmakers said complied with the constitution. The courts disagreed and four years of legal battles ensued before the final maps were approved.
This year, Republican leaders have pledged to be open about the map-drawing process and to follow the constitution. It's a pledge that's being heard with skeptical ears.
"We saw lots of smoke and mirrors from the Republican leadership in the 2010 redistricting cycle. I don't expect to seeing anything different this round except better smoke and mirrors," said Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who was called as an expert witness when redistricting maps were challenged a decade ago.
Republicans don't have to use the new data to simply carve out a firmly GOP district. They can also push more Democrats into districts safely held by Democrats so that competitive neighboring districts become Republican-leaning.
In the case of The Villages, it may mean moving some lines in that area to bring conservative voters into a district that they can flip. That could mean tinkering with the central Florida district held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy.
The Villages, the nation’s largest retirement community, firmly supports Republican candidates by wide margins. The community is largely based in Sumter County, where President Donald Trump won 68% of the vote last year, while Gov. Ron DeSantis captured 69% two years earlier. The community in central Florida grew 39%, from about 93,000 people to about 130,000, since the last census.
Republicans don't need to make the area more Republican and can use some of those voters to build their strength in other districts by shifting lines around.
"The Villages is a very conservative growth area. They're not going to pack all of their conservative Republicans who have moved down (to The Villages) into a single conservative district," Smith said.
"Those individuals are fungible and can be moved into districts that will make slightly Democratic-leaning districts less Democratic."
Overall, Florida's population increased by 2.7 million over the decade, including 1.4 million Hispanics. Growth in the non-Hispanic white population was comparatively anemic: only 215,000 people or about 8% of the growth in the state. Florida's size and influence are critical in national politics.
The additional congressional seat will give the state one more electoral college vote in presidential elections, which are often unpredictable in Florida. And the state will play a role in the GOP attempt to regain control of the U.S. House. Republicans now hold 16 of the state's 27 congressional seats and the party will seek to build on that through the redistricting process, even if House Speaker Chris Sprowls and Senate President Wilton Simpson have directed their chambers not to be political and to follow the constitution.
"The House continues to strongly recommend that planned or unplanned conversations about redistricting not take place outside of the committee process with individuals who have a vested interest in the outcomes of the redistricting process," Sprowls said in a letter to representatives.
The letter also added that "situations where you comment on your personal preferences or ambitions for a given district, give your opinion regarding an incumbent, or even making satirical remarks should be avoided."
But while Democrats appreciate the spirit of the message, they're also not naive.
"I fully expect the party in power to take advantage of their power and try to solidify it even further," said Democratic state Rep. Kelly Skidmore.
"It is up to the minority to fight back and fight it publicly and engage with the residents of Florida to demand that the districts are in fact fair and legal."
Associated Press writer Mike Schneider in Orlando contributed to this report.
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