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Issue #91: How the Palm Beach Commission Flipped to the GOP
A bad election and a turncoat Democrat
When Ron DeSantis and Marco Rubio won the 2022 Florida Governor and US Senate contests last year, they flipped several Biden counties. Several of these had, until recently, been viewed as steadfast Democratic counties. In Palm Beach County, Ron DeSantis became the first Republican Gubernatorial candidate to take the county since 1986. In the Gubernatorial contest, Ron DeSantis managed to pick up a 3% win. In the Senate race, Demings managed to narrowly hold off Rubio.
The flipping of Palm Beach was huge considering this was a county that backed Biden by 12% in 2020. Like many of the Florida results, the low Democratic turnout was a major driver of the results.
Republican Turnout was 65.7%
Democratic Turnout was 55.0%
White turnout was 63%
Black turnout was just 38%
Hispanic turnout was just 37%
In general, the turnout picture points to a whiter and more Republican electorate than normal for their county.
While Palm Beach flipping wasn’t critical to DeSantis winning, the topline results did have major implications for the county government. Despite Democrats going into the election with a 6-1 lead in the county commission, they now find themselves in the minority on the board. This was thanks to two of their seats flipping to the GOP, followed by DeSantis getting to appoint a third member.
So lets see what happened.
The Palm Beach Commission Results
Palm Beach county is divided into seven county commission districts. The board has long been controlled by Democrats. The newest lines can be seen below; including topline racial data.
While some of the districts may stand out for their shapes, each gives the assorted demographic groups representation. The most recent lines were approved unanimously by the board.
District 1: The whitest and most Republican seat, covering the upper income suburbs of North Palm Beach and Jupiter.
District 2: Looping around the Hispanic-access 3rd, this diversifying district covers communities from West Palm down to Boyton Beach.
District 3: The newly-drawn Hispanic-access seat, which reflects Hispanic growth in the Palm Springs/Green Acres region.
District 4: Covering Boca, parts of Delray and the coastal regions of South Palm. This heavily white district also has a sizeable Jewish population of around 25-30%.
District 5: Covering largely unincorporated Western Palm, this district includes many prominent Jewish communities, and is an estimated 35-40% Jewish.
District 6: Covering much of the empty wetlands/farms, the district links the towns City of Wellington and its neighbors with “The Glades” farming communities along Lake Okeechobee. The district has a large non-white population that is heavily concentrated in the Glades region.
District 7: Covering African-American and Caribbean voters in West Palm and down a corridor to Delray, this seat has performed for black candidates since its creation.
So how did these districts vote in 2022? Both DeSantis and Rubio won 3 of the 7. The GOP-voting 4th and 6th also flipped to Republican on the commission.
The GOP flips of the 4th and 6th gave the Republicans three seats to the Democrats four. Democrats were in a poor position that it wasn’t 2 or 3 that were up instead, as that might have saved them. Also I personally find it weird that county commissions can redraw their lines and not have everyone up.
So how did these results compare with past cycles? Well the 2016-2022 results by these districts can be seen below. This was the first time the 6th has gone GOP for some time, but the 4th has been a more marginal seat.
Crist performed worse than previous Democrats across the board. In the Senate race, Rubio greatly expanded his support compared to 2016 in several districts. The 4th and 5th had the weakest growth; partially attributed not only to suburban shifts to Democrats but also these areas still holding many of the NYC metro area Jewish retirees that have long been a Democratic bedrock.
So what caused these districts to shift their voting behavior? Well surprise surprise, the biggest factor was turnout. Across all districts, the Democratic turnout was lower than GOP turnout.
Focusing on our two flipped seats, the party gap for the 6th stands out. Thanks to a 12 point gap, the party share of votes cast was nearly even, while NPA shares were way down. The 4th had a much smaller gap, only 5%. However, compared to 2018, when the seat initially flipped to Democrats, the party gap was nearly even. While it was not up this cycle, its notable that the 5th, which has the largest % of Jewish residents (retiree or not) actually had higher Democratic turnout in past midterms. Its only 1.5% gap is heavily attributed to absentee voting among these retirees.
Below is a similar turnout table, but this time by race. This table highlights what is broadly being seen statewide. Hispanic turnout was outpaced by black, and especially white voters. The Hispanic-access 3rd, for example, which is 32% in Hispanic registration, was only 24% in votes cast.
The weaker non-white turnout is a major driver for Palm Beach flipping. Even among Hispanics who showed up, their is a notable party gap. Countywide, Hispanic Republican turnout was 53% vs 36% for Democrats or 29% for independents. Among votes cast, the Hispanic vote was nearly even between Democrats and Republicans even though registration gives DEMs a 20,000 person advantage.
Was Redistricting to Blame
Not that I have seen this argued, but I want to address any question about the role of redistricting in the results. Compared with the 2012-2020 map, the districts outside of 2 and 3 were largely kept the same. See the comparison map below.
Two and three were redrawn to make the 3rd a Hispanic-access seat. This was something the whole commission supported. How would the topline results have shaken out under the old lines? The calculations are below.
The difference is very modest, with 3 being a bit more Democratic (since the blow of low Hispanic turnout is spread out between it and the 2nd.
There is no reason to think the loss of 4 and 6 would have been any different under older lines.
The Elections for 4 and 6
I want to look at the district 4 and 6 races closer.
First I wanted to start with the 4th. This seat was traditionally a Republican-oriented districts; especially because of its coast-hugging appendage. However, when it opened up due to term limits in 2018, Democrats had an almost pass at taking the seat. Boca City Councilman Robert Weinroth filed for the seat and raised $260,000. His Republican opponent was Billy Vale, a political newcomer who only raised $13,000. With the 2018 midterm shaping up to be a Democratic affair, though in Florida the GOP would win 4/5 statewide contests, it seemed the Palm Beach GOP did not make holding the 4th a priority. As Gillum would take the district by 5 points, it would go for Weinroth by 9.
Heading into 2022, it was believed Weinroth was a heavy favorite to win re-election. While the 4th had been more GOP-leaning pre-2016, it had backed Biden in 2020 and appeared to be more Democrat-trending. However, as turnout collapsed for Democrats and the coastal GOP suburbs moved back to the GOP, Crist lost the district by 10 points, and Weinroth lost by almost 4%.
Marci Woodward, a first time candidate, won the seat. Weinroth outperformed Crist across the district, but the most in the western precincts, which by and large have a larger Jewish population.
Weinroth had raised over $400,000 for his re-election, while Woodward raised just $50,000. The money didn’t matter though, when the democratic base did not show up. Persuasion on TV/mail only gets you so far. The statewide democratic collapse sink Weinroth, who on paper was a clear favorite. This is another example that party fortunes sinking even the strongest of candidates.
Over in County 6, the this seat was open, but was viewed as favoring Democrats. The Democratic nominee was first-time candidate Michelle McGovern, who pulled off a primary upset when she beat State Rep Matt Willhite. However, in the general, she lost to fellow first-time candidate Sara Baxter.
Note that some of those very large-by-land precincts have only a handful of votes. Population is more clustered right off the lake.
The massive turnout gap between the two parties influenced most of this loss. Turnout was down in the Glades, and down in the democratic areas of Wellington.
Here, for context, is how the 2020 Presidential contest looked in the district. The most critical difference here is the lighter shades of red in the Wellington and Acreage.
Such a large partisan turnout gap was likely to doom Democratic efforts in this seat. The base here is much more reliant on voters who have a lower propensity to turn out.
The Flipping of the 3rd
The results of the 2022 midterms left Democrats with a 4-3 lead on the commission. However, this was shifted to a 3-4 advantage to the GOP when Governor DeSantis appointed District 3 Commissioner David Kerner to head the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Kerner, a former Democratic State House member, broke from his party to endorse DeSantis in the Gubernatorial election.
Many of us saw this move for what it was, the effort of someone who long called himself a conservative democrat to angle for post. Word is Kerner, a former police officer, is interested in a run for Palm Beach sheriff, maybe as an independent. Meanwhile, Kerner’s appointment will allow him to get in good with GOP circles, collect a paycheck, and keep an eye on future electoral office. The GOP will love to trot him out.
Palm Beach Democratic Chair Mindy Koch summed up the appointment: “As for Dave Kerner, we're not surprised. I guess Dave got his 30 pieces of silver.""
The appointment allowed DeSantis to appoint Michael Barnett, the Chairman of the Palm Beach Republican Party, to the board, giving the GOP the commission. This could be reversed, however, in 2024. The 3rd district will be up then, and while it shifted to the right thanks to the Hispanic turnout drop, it still voted Democratic.
Assuming Democrats can shift course and keep turnout steady or improved, they should be in a strong position to fight for and take this seat back. there is no shortage of local Democratic officials in this area.
For the meantime, Palm Beach will sit with a 4-3 GOP commission. Democrats can fix this, but as 2022 showed, they cannot assume anything. The Democrats of Palm Beach, indeed all of Florida, need to close that turnout gap. Otherwise, more Democrat-held commissions will fall.