WASHINGTON (Tallahassee Democrat) - Florida lawmakers used to be a fairly independent lot, and for good reason.
With most House members representing swing districts where support from both Democrats and Republicans was needed to win, it wasn't uncommon to see lawmakers crossing party lines on Capitol Hill. Moderate Democrats voted with the GOP about a third of the time 15 years ago, while Republicans often sided with Democrats on about 10 percent of votes.
Only seven of the state's 27 congressmen represent a district that's remotely up for grabs on Election Day, evidence that lawmakers' incentive to behave independently has withered, analysts say. Just a decade ago, 13 of the 25 seats in Florida were competitive. The state added two seats last year due to population gains.
It's a trend in evidence from coast to coast. And it's contributing to the Washington gridlock that's led to a partial government shutdown and could result in a first-ever default on the nation's debts.
In 1998, about a third of the 226 Republicans in the House represented districts won by Democrat Bill Clinton. By 2012, only 17 of the seats 234 Republicans captured were in districts won by Democrat Barack Obama.
Two of those were in Florida: the Pinellas County district represented by Bill Young and the Miami-Dade County district represented by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
The influence of outside money, the rise of ideologically driven media and the redrawing of congressional boundaries are blamed for much of the partisanship hampering action on a variety of proposals - such as a temporary spending bill to finance the government - that used to win swift approval.
But David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the independent Cook Political Report, says there's an even more powerful force at work: like-minded voters deciding to live near each other.
"Republican areas have gotten more Republican," he said. "Democratic areas have gotten more Democratic. And that's a function of voters increasingly being attracted to areas where their cultural values will be shared."
Redistricting, Wasserman said, "has compounded that self-sorting. If voters have divided into divergent political camps with their feet, it's easier for map-makers to carve out very, very partisan districts. And that's what we've seen."
Take the Big Bend district represented by Republican Steve Southerland of Panama City. A decade ago, it was represented by moderate Democrat Allen Boyd and was considered a swing district, according to Wasserman's analysis. Today, based on the results of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, it's considered a seat that leans Republican.
It's true of both Democratic and Republican districts, and it helps explain why most House members from the Sunshine State voted with their party at least 96 percent of the time on votes where the majority of one side voted against the majority of the other.
Southerland broke from his party on only 4 percent of votes, according to Congressional Quarterly.
The number of swing districts nationwide has plunged from 164 (out of 435) in 1998 to 90 last year. That means the real threat for nearly 80 percent of House members is a primary challenge, which tends to shove incumbents further toward their liberal or conservative base and further away from the middle, where compromise is usually forged.
It's a big problem for moderate Republicans, said Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, considered one of his party's centrists.
"It's a predetermined outcome in the general election, so the real race is in the Republican primary," he said. "And they've been threatened that if you break ranks, we're going to put somebody in the primary against you."
Nelson, serving his 25th year in Congress, said politics has become a "blood sport." The rapport between individual Democrats and Republicans that helped get bipartisan deals done has all but disappeared, he said.
"A lot of that has changed because one side doesn't talk to the other," Nelson, of Orlando, said. "And when you get in forums where you can talk, they're not listening to each other. They're shouting past each other."
Young, who will retire next year after 44 years in the House, has been one of those moderates.
Although he told the Tampa Bay Times this week he appreciates the spirit of Republican tea party members who have criticized party moderates for compromising too much, Young seemed to yearn for a time when getting along wasn't viewed as a liability.
"I'm a little disappointed. It seems there's too much politics," he said. "It's a different Congress."
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If you want to contact your Congressman:
Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R), Dist. 12:
2313 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R), Dist. 13:
2407 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-5961
Fax: (202) 225-9764
Rep. Kathy Castor (D), Dist. 14:
205 Cannon House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Rep. Dennis Ross (R), Dist. 15:
229 Cannon HOB
Washington, D.C. 20515
Phone: (202) 225-1252
Fax: (202) 226-0585
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R), Dist. 16:
2104 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-5015
Fax: (202) 226-0828
Sen. Marco Rubio (R)
284 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington DC, 20510
Sen. Bill Nelson (D)
United States Senate
716 Senate Hart Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Ledyard King Democrat Washington Bureau