TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — With Republican Rick Scott and Democrat Charlie Crist already slugging it out, the 2014 gubernatorial race dominates political talk in Florida.
But scattered across the state, candidates are raising money and getting organized to try to win competitive Florida House seats. Campaign filings point to the House as the battleground in next year's legislative races. Of the 20 Senate seats up for election, incumbents are unopposed in 15 of the districts --- and the other five incumbents have huge fund-raising leads.
Granted, it is still early. Candidates do not formally qualify for legislative races until June. But one way to pick out the competitive House races is to watch campaign contributions. In other words, follow the money.
Heading into 2014, here are seven House races to watch:
HOUSE DISTRICT 15: Covering a huge chunk of Jacksonville's Westside, District 15 became an open seat when Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, took a job as president and chief executive officer of the city's chamber of commerce and said he would not run for re-election.
Republican businessman Jay Fant opened a campaign account in October and quickly raised $139,268 in November, along with loaning his campaign $138,500. Attorney Paul Renner entered the race earlier and had raised $76,800 as of the end of November..
Most likely, the winner of the GOP battle will capture the seat, as the district has been reliably Republican. Scott won nearly 57 percent of the vote in the district during his successful 2010 run for the governor's office against Democrat Alex Sink, while GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain also won by double digits in the area.
HOUSE DISTRICT 29: Lake Mary Democrat Mike Clelland was the giant slayer of the 2012 House elections. Running in a strongly Republican Seminole County district, Clelland unseated Rep. Chris Dorworth, a Lake Mary Republican who was in line to become House speaker in 2014.
But Clelland faces another tough race next year against former Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood. Redistricting put Plakon and Dorworth in the same district in 2012, which led Plakon to run unsuccessfully for another Orlando-area seat. But next year, Plakon will be back running in more-familiar territory.
As of Nov. 30, Clelland had raised $107,404 for his re-election bid, while Plakon had raised $77,377. Clelland, a lawyer and former firefighter, has received heavy support from unions, firefighters and law firms. Plakon, meanwhile, has received support from major players such as Walt Disney Parks & Resorts.
HOUSE DISTRICT 30: A member of one of the most-prominent families in Florida Democratic politics, Karen Castor Dentel got a big win in 2012 when she beat Plakon in the district that includes parts of Orange and Seminole counties.
Now, the question is whether Dentel, whose mother is former Education Commissioner Betty Castor and whose sister is U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, can fend off Republican challenges in the swing district. Democrats had success in the district during the 2012 presidential race and the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, but the margins in both races were close.
Longwood City Commissioner Bob Cortes and Seminole County businessman Scott Sturgill are seeking the Republican nomination to run against Dentel. Cortes had raised $61,710 and loaned his campaign $25,000 as of Nov. 30, while Sturgill had raised $29,467. Dentel had raised $85,040.
HOUSE DISTRICT 65: Voters in northern Pinellas County went for Scott in the 2010 gubernatorial campaign and Romney in the 2012 presidential campaign. But two years ago, they also jettisoned incumbent Republican state Rep. Peter Nehr and elected Palm Harbor Democrat Carl Zimmermann by a relatively comfortable margin.
Expect the GOP to push to take back the seat in 2014, with Palm Harbor lawyer Chris Sprowls already raising more than twice as much money as Zimmermann as of the end of November. Sprowls had raised $97,246, while Zimmermann had collected $43,885.
Sprowls, however, appears headed to a Republican primary against attorney Debbie Ann Faulkner, who opened a campaign account this month. Zimmermann also was outspent by Nehr in 2012, but he beat the three-term incumbent who faced a series of controversies.
HOUSE DISTRICT 74: Like District 15 in Jacksonville, House District 74 is an open seat that is almost certain to be won by a Republican.
Rep. Doug Holder, R-Venice, faces term limits next year, clearing the way for a race that pits Venice physician Julio Gonzalez against former Broward County Republican Chairman Richard DeNapoli. The district in southern Sarasota County is a GOP stronghold, with, for example, Scott beating Sink in the district by nearly 10 percentage points during the 2010 gubernatorial race.
Gonzalez started raising money for the race late last year and had collected $128,201 as of Nov. 30, with much of his support coming from other physicians and the health-care industry. DeNapoli opened a campaign account in August and had raised $43,141 through November. He also had loaned the campaign $150,000.
HOUSE DISTRICT 89: Palm Beach County has long been a place where Democrats look to run up big margins in statewide and national elections. But House District 89, which includes much of Boca Raton and areas such as the island of Palm Beach, is more of a swing area.
Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, is seeking a third term after beating back a challenge in 2012 from former Democratic House Speaker Tom Gustafson. Local businessman David Silvers opened a campaign account in November to try to win the seat for Democrats and quickly raised $20,376, while loaning $5,100 of his own money to the campaign.
Hager, meanwhile, had collected $81,470 in contributions as of Nov. 30, with many of the state's politically influential companies and groups lining up behind him. He also can take at least some comfort in the recent performance of the district, which went for Romney in 2012 and Scott in 2010.
HOUSE DISTRICT 112: Democrats got a major victory in 2012 when attorney Jose Javier Rodriguez handily defeated former lawmaker Alex Diaz de la Portilla in the newly redrawn District 112.
But the GOP appears ready to try to unseat Rodriguez next year, with Republican candidate Daniel Diaz Leyva raising almost twice as much money as Rodriguez through November. The district includes voters in Miami, Coral Gables and Key Biscayne.
Diaz Leyva, a Coral Gables attorney who opened his campaign account in August, had raised $107,315 as of Nov. 30. Rodriguez had collected $55,246, with a large chunk of that money coming in early 2013.