By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - A court decision rejecting many of Florida's congressional district maps last week has turned up the temperature in an already hot election year, adding more uncertainty in the largest U.S. swing state in the 2016 presidential elections.
Eight of Florida's 27 districts must be redrawn by fall, affecting such areas as the rural Panhandle, populous Tampa Bay and the heavily Hispanic precincts of Miami.
More competitive districts could boost turnout in races for president as well as an open U.S. Senate seat, also regarded as a toss-up, political experts said. Small bumps at the polls can make a big difference in a state where President Barack Obama won re-election in 2012 with less than 1 percent of the vote.
The overhaul, ordered by the Florida Supreme Court to correct partisan redistricting known as gerrymandering, has also imperiled rising stars in both parties, and could bring one player out of political exile.
“It has the potential to have quite an impact on what we see in November of 2016,” said former Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-Democrat mulling a run for Congress in a hometown district likely to be redrawn in his favor.
The Tampa Bay-area seat is likely to become too heavily Democratic for Republican incumbent David Jolly, expected to announce his candidacy for the U.S. Senate next week.
Also caught in the crosshairs is Representative Gwen Graham, a Democrat who last year famously defeated an incumbent Republican in a conservative district around Tallahassee in north Florida.
Her district may become inhospitable to any Democrat after lawmakers address the court's issues with another district held by Corrine Brown, a Democrat, that snakes from Jacksonville to the Orlando area to create a minority-access seat.
Graham declined to comment, but observers say she could seek to follow her father, former U.S. Senator Bob Graham, and jump into the Senate race.
Both parties could boost funding and get presidential candidates to campaign with congressional hopefuls in more competitive districts, said Jon Ausman, a veteran state Democratic campaign consultant.
“Presidential candidates have coattails; congressional candidates do not,” Ausman said. “But more money may be spent on field operations.”
The scramble follows lengthy litigation over maps that now have 17 Republicans and 10 Democrats representing Florida in the U.S. House of Representatives, although Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans in the state.
In 2010, Florida voters barred state legislators from favoring party affiliation or incumbency in drawing the lines.
(Editing by Letitia Stein and Eric Walsh)