Gov. Ron DeSantis scrambles Florida’s redistricting debate, with an eye to 2022 and perhaps 2024 elections

Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis and President Donald Trump during a meeting with governors-elect at the White House in 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has cast himself as the nation’s boldest and most aggressively conservative Republican leader, his eye on a 2022 reelection campaign and a potential presidential run two years later.

DeSantis last month introduced legislation that would allow parents to sue if schools taught critical race theory. He has sued the Biden administration for releasing immigration detainees in his state. And he has repeatedly championed his refusal to require mask-wearing, to mandate vaccines or to push for business closures throughout the pandemic.

It nonetheless shocked even fellow Florida Republicans when, in the midst of a pressure campaign from Donald Trump’s former senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon, DeSantis incited a redistricting battle with his own party, roping the state’s two legislative chambers into the fray and asking the state’s highest court to pick sides.

Days before the Florida state Senate was to vote on new congressional district lines in January, DeSantis presented a dramatically more partisan map that boosted Republican seats and eliminated a district where a plurality of voters are Black.

The state Senate ignored DeSantis’s last-minute appeal and passed its version, a map that received support from every Republican and all but four Democrats in the chamber.

DeSantis responded by asking the state Supreme Court to weigh in on whether his map’s erasure of the 5th Congressional District, where Black Democrats are advantaged, would withstand legal scrutiny. The move froze the state House’s redistricting work, which was set to begin soon after.

On Thursday, in a rare legal setback for DeSantis, the state Supreme Court rejected his request for an advisory opinion, saying the governor’s request was “broad and contains multiple questions that implicate complex federal and state constitutional matters and precedents interpreting the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

DeSantis’s spokeswoman, Taryn Fenske, said in a statement that the governor had been “hopeful the Supreme Court would provide clarity to legal questions surrounding the maps” and that DeSantis looks forward to working with legislators to craft new district lines. Within hours of the court’s rejection, the state House’s redistricting committee released a map that overwhelmingly favored Republicans — but unlike DeSantis’s version, kept the 5th Congressional District intact, setting up another round pitting the legislators and their maps against their party’s governor.

The district at the center of the fight stretches some 200 miles across Florida’s northern border from Jacksonville to Tallahassee. The area was home to some of Florida’s wealthiest antebellum cotton plantations, made prosperous on the backs of enslaved Black people. DeSantis released his map decimating that district on the eve of the holiday honoring civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

“This is an east-west district that protects African Americans that descend from the pre-Civil War Florida,” said Matthew Isbell, a Democratic redistricting expert. “They finally had political representation.”

For the past five years, Rep. Al Lawson, a Black Democrat, has represented the district. He unseated incumbent Corrine Brown — another Black Democrat who had represented a different configuration of the district since 1993 — in a 2016 primary.

“I didn’t know it was coming,” Lawson said of the governor’s proposal to abolish his district. “It was unusual; in all the years I’ve never seen a governor’s office submit a plan. The mind-set should be what is best for the people in a particular area, not what’s best for the party, and that’s often been hard for Republicans.”

George Gillis, 76, who serves as chairman of the deacons at Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Jacksonville, said he is concerned about DeSantis’s motives for slicing up the district where he lives and prays. Under DeSantis’s plan, Black voters in the district would be dispersed among four Republican seats, all currently represented by White conservatives.

“A lot of Black people turned out to vote, and now the governor is looking for ways to turn that around. I have a feeling he’s looking at a presidential run, and he has this new map that he thinks could help him,” Gillis said. “He’s trying to rig the system, to put it very bluntly.”

DeSantis’s general counsel Ryan Newman defended the governor’s map, saying the 5th Congressional District as it is now drawn is a “flagrant gerrymander.” The current map was crafted in 2015 by a panel of judges who determined a previous iteration by the legislature was overtly partisan.

“We had legal concerns with the congressional redistricting maps under consideration in the legislature,” Newman said. “We submitted an alternative proposal, which we can support, that adheres to federal and state requirements and addresses our legal concerns, while working to increase district compactness, minimize county splits where feasible and protect minority voting populations.”

Florida’s current delegation in the U.S. House has 16 Republicans and 11 Democrats. The state’s population growth in the 2020 Census earned it an additional seat. The map passed by the state Senate has 16 districts that would have been won by Trump and 12 that would have been won by President Biden. The DeSantis proposal has 18 Trump seats to 10 that voted for Biden, and in two of the Biden districts, the Democrat won by less than one percentage point. In a good political year for Republicans, as this year is expected to be, Republicans could win 20 out of 28 seats in a state Trump won by just three percentage points.

Unlike other Republican-controlled states that maximized their partisan advantage through redistricting a decade ago, Florida’s Republican skew was limited by the court’s 2015 redrawing. With little room to move elsewhere, national Republicans this year saw Florida as one of their best opportunities to draw new GOP seats.

“If I were to guess what is going on here, there’s pressure upon the governor to help Republican interests nationally,” said Michael McDonald, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “He has aspirations to run for the [presidential] nomination in 2024, so he doesn’t want to look like he’s not standing up for Republicans; here’s a fairly low-cost way for him to do that.”

DeSantis’s critics have slammed the governor for publicly inserting himself into the redistricting process and seeking legal input before a final map is passed.

“This is by far, I think, the most aggressive action we’ve seen from any Republican governor in the country when it comes to redistricting, and for me to say that is significant, given the way in which Republican governors have conducted themselves over the course of this cycle in Republican legislatures,” said Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general under President Barack Obama, who leads an advocacy organization for national Democratic redistricting efforts.

DeSantis’s redistricting moves coincided with the concerted campaign against the state Senate map by far-right Republicans angry that Florida’s Republican-controlled government wasn’t using its mapmaking power to draw more GOP seats at a time when control of the House rests on a handful of races.

Bannon, now the host of “War Room” — a six-day-a-week podcast popular among Trump devotees — started by publicly pressuring state legislators to draw more districts that Trump would have won easily.

Days before DeSantis dropped his surprise map, the “War Room” account on Gettr, the social media site favored by many Trump fans, asked followers to contact the governor “and tell him to [stay] focused on redistricting in his state to be sure MAGA gets these seats.”

Christian Ziegler, the vice chairman of the Florida GOP, traveled to Arizona last month for a Trump rally and said he was repeatedly approached by strangers in the crowd.

“I was wearing my Florida GOP jacket, and throughout the day, I can’t even tell you how many people came up to me asking about the congressional maps in Florida and asking whether DeSantis was going to get involved,” Ziegler said.

“It’s very popular with the base,” he continued. “You have a Republican official standing up and fighting for the conservative cause because they want to win.”

Bannon took credit for DeSantis’s move, saying on his podcast in January that he and his supporters’ pressure campaign made the governor weigh in with a more partisan map.

“It’s DeSantis and the guys down in Florida listening,” Bannon said on his show, adding that “the map came out, and this is 100 percent [due to] the ‘War Room’ and particularly all the great citizens down in Florida.”

“We love the fact that you called and had your voices heard,” he said. “Look at what happened.”

But voting rights groups were not celebrating DeSantis’s attempt to influence the final map. Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, called the governor’s involvement “an unwelcome surprise.” Her organization led the successful lawsuit against the legislature-drawn congressional map after the 2010 Census. It was also instrumental in promoting an amendment to Florida’s constitution to take partisanship out of redistricting, which voters overwhelmingly approved in 2010.

“It’s really baffling,” she said, “and it’s a powerful statement in a negative way that a governor of a Southern state would do anything that openly and obviously harms the voting rights of many minority groups.”

DeSantis, asked about his map at a recent news conference, said his concerns about the lines were “mostly legal issues, it’s not really political issues,” and then pivoted to bashing congressional maps drawn by New York and Illinois Democrats, which he called “unbelievable monstrosities.”

Adam Kincaid, who runs the Republicans’ national redistricting effort, would not comment on the map passed by the state Senate or the one proposed by DeSantis, but he called the governor’s draft a “completely legal congressional proposal.”

But other Republicans are less convinced. State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, who chairs the chamber’s redistricting committee, said he was unaware of DeSantis’s map before it was released publicly. He said he had heard grumbling from some conservatives about the bipartisan congressional map he shepherded, but no one had approached him about it directly.

Rodrigues said senators took care to draw a map that would survive court scrutiny, unlike their effort a decade ago. He said the bipartisan map follows the criteria in the 2010 constitutional amendment, which says new boundaries shouldn’t favor one political party or incumbent and cannot diminish the opportunity of minorities to elect a candidate of their choice.

“I’m a proud Republican, a very conservative Republican, but when I was elected, I was sworn into office on an oath to follow and protect the Constitution whether I like it or not,” he said. “I have a responsibility to be in compliance with our Constitution.”

Rep. Kelly Skidmore, the top Democratic member on the state House congressional redistricting committee, said the governor’s proposal was inappropriate, unconstitutional and violates the federal Voting Rights Act.

“The way the governor behaves is modeled after former president Trump in terms of, ‘I can do whatever I want and the rules and protocols be damned,’ ” Skidmore said.

DeSantis’s next move is unclear. He retains veto power over any compromise bill passed by the legislature.

“Whether or not the map becomes law, it still doesn’t matter for him, he’ll get the credit for fighting for it,” Democratic redistricting consultant Isbell said. “It’s a cynical ploy to ingratiate himself with a very activist base. It’s important he not be viewed as caving. He probably saw the risk that if he signed a pretty fair map, he’d be viewed as a traitor.”

Adrián Blanco and Harry Stevens contributed to this report.

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