Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was furious. Late last year, the state’s Republican legislature had drawn congressional maps that largely kept districts intact, leaving the GOP with only a modest electoral advantage.
DeSantis threw out the legislature’s work and redrew Florida’s congressional districts, making them far more favorable to Republicans. The plan was so aggressive that the Republican-controlled legislature balked and fought DeSantis for months. The governor overruled the legislature and pushed through his map.
DeSantis’ office has publicly stressed that partisan considerations played no role and that partisan operatives were not involved in the new map.
A ProPublica examination of how that map was drawn — and who helped decide its new boundaries — reveals a much different origin story. The new details show that the governor’s office appears to have misled the public and the state legislature and may also have violated Florida law.
DeSantis aides worked behind the scenes with an attorney who serves as the national GOP’s top redistricting lawyer and other consultants tied to the national party apparatus, according to records and interviews.
Florida’s constitution was amended in 2010 to prohibit partisan-driven redistricting, a landmark effort in the growing movement to end gerrymandering as an inescapable feature of American politics.
Barbara Pariente, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court who retired in 2019, told ProPublica that DeSantis’ collaboration with people connected to the national GOP would constitute “significant evidence of a violation of the constitutional amendment.”
“If that evidence was offered in a trial, the fact that DeSantis was getting input from someone working with the Republican Party and who’s also working in other states — that would be very powerful,” said Pariente, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Democrat Lawton Chiles.
An invitation to a meeting was obtained by ProPublica shows that on Jan. 5, top DeSantis aides had a “Florida Redistricting Kick-off Call” with out-of-state operatives. These outsiders were also working with other states to help the Republican Party create an electoral map favorable to them. DeSantis’s key GOP law firm worked for dozens of hours in the days following the call, according to invoices. The state has been billed more than $450,000 by the firm for its redistricting work.
DeSantis released his new map one week and a bit after the call. Florida’s governors have never before pushed their own district lines. His plan wiped away half of the state’s Black-dominated congressional districts, dramatically curtailing Black voting power in America’s largest swing state.
The Florida Supreme Court had created one of the districts seven years ago. It was held by Al Lawson, a Democrat. It is located in a region of north Florida that was once dominated largely by cotton and tobacco plantations. drawn together Black communitiesThe majority of the population are descendants of slaves and sharecroppers. DeSantis decimated it, breaking the district in four. DeSantis then took each piece and hid them in a heavily Republican, majority-white district.
DeSantis’ strong-armingHis Republican alliesWas covered extensivelyBy the Florida press. However, very little information has been available about the governor’s bold move or who his office worked alongside. To reconstruct DeSantis’ groundbreaking undertaking, ProPublicaInterviews with dozens consultants, legislators, political operatives, and thousands of pages of documents obtained via public records requests and the nonpartisan watchdog American Oversight were conducted.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to detailed questions for this story.
“Florida’s Governor fought for a legal map — unlike the gerrymandered plan the Governor rightly vetoed,” Adam Kincaid, executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, whose top lawyer was hired by DeSantis’ office, said in an email to ProPublica. “If Governor DeSantis retained some of the best redistricting lawyers and experts in the country to advise him then that speaks to the good judgment of the Governor, not some alleged partisan motive.”
DeSantis has been governor for four years and has championed many causes. controversial policiesRepeatedly used his powerTo punish his political opponents. He was a presumptive Republican presidential nominee in 2024. His moves often seemed to be designed to attract headlines such as his recent stunt sending migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. But it’s the governor’s less flashy commandeering of the redistricting process that may ultimately have the most long-lasting consequences.
Analysts predict that DeSantis’ map will give the GOP four more members of Congress from Florida, the largest gain by either party in any state. If the forecasts hold, Republicans will win 20 of Florida’s 28 seats in the upcoming midterms — meaning that Republicans would control more than 70% of the House delegation in a state where Trump won just over half of the vote.
The reverberations of DeSantis’ effort could go beyond Florida in another way. His erasure of Lawson’s seat broke long-held norms and invited racial discrimination lawsuits, experts said. Six political scientists and law professors studying voting rights were interviewed. ProPublica it’s the first instance they’re aware of where a state so thoroughly dismantled a Black-dominated district. If the governor prevails over suits challenging his map then he will have opened the door for Republicans from all parts of the country to take aim in Black-held areas.
“To the extent that this is successful, it’s going to be replicated in other states. There’s no question,” said Michael Latner, a political science professor at California Polytechnic State University who studies redistricting. “The repercussions are so broad that it’s kind of terrifying.”
Al Lawson’s district, now wiped away by DeSantis, had been created in response to an earlier episode of surreptitious gerrymandering in Florida.
Twelve years ago, Florida became the first state to outlaw partisan-gerrymandering. The Fair Districts Amendment was enshrined in the state constitution by Florida citizens through a ballot initiative that received 63% of votes. The amendment prohibited drawing maps with “the intent to favor or disfavor a political party.” It also created new protections for minority communities, in a state that’s 17% Black, forming a backstop as the U.S. Supreme Court chipped away at the federal Voting Rights Act.
In 1870, Florida elected its first Black member to Congress. This was shortly after the Civil War ended. Florida quickly passed new voter suppression laws and Walls was soon removed from office as Reconstruction became the era of Jim Crow.
Florida did not elect a Black representative to Congress until 1992 due to distortion of maps. That year, a federal court created three plurality-Black districts in Florida — and then three Black politicians won seats in the U.S. House.
After the Fair Districts amendment became law in 2010, state legislators promised to conduct what one called “the most transparent, open, and interactive redistricting process in America.” Policymakers went on tour across the state, hosting public hearings where their constituents could learn about the legislature’s decision-making and voice their concerns.
They also served a much more sinister purpose, as a judge would eventually rule. They were instrumental in what state circuit judge Terry Lewis described as “a conspiracy to influence and manipulate the Legislature into a violation of its constitutional duty.”
A group of state-level Republican agents worked in secret for several months to create maps favorable to the GOP. They coordinated with both the Republican National Committee as well as the leadership of the statehouses. They recruited civilians to attend the hearings, and submitted the maps as theirs.
An email contained the advice that the operatives gave to their recruits. “Do NOT identify oneself orally or in writing,” it read, “as a part of the Republican party. It is more than OK to represent oneself as just a citizen.”
The details of the scheme were only discovered after years of litigation. The Florida Supreme Court responded in force in 2015. In a series of rulings that ultimately rejected the Republicans’ efforts, the court laid out the stringent new requirements under Fair Districts, making clear that partisan “practices that have been acceptable in the past” were now illegal in the state of Florida.
After ruling that the legislature’s process was unconstitutional, the court threw out the Republicans’ congressional district lines and imposed a map of their own. That is how Lawson’s district came to be.
“It was important,” Pariente, who authored the key opinions, told ProPublica, “to make sure the amendment had teeth and was enforceable.”
The 2019 U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that elevated the importance of the amendment. landmark ruling on redistricting.
The court’s decision in Rucho v. Common CauseFederal court challenges to partisan-gerrymanders were barred. Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said it was not an issue for the federal judiciary to decide, but emphasized the ruling did not “condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void.”
Roberts stated that the issue was being actively addressed at state level. He cited Florida’s amendment and one of Pariente’s opinions. Responding to liberal justices who wanted to reject Rucho’s map as an unconstitutional gerrymander, Roberts wrote they could not because “there is no ‘Fair Districts Amendment’ to the Federal Constitution.”
In 2021, state legislators were more cautious.
The senate instructed its members to “insulate themselves from partisan-funded organizations” and others who might harbor partisan motivations, reminding legislators that a court could see conversations with outsiders as evidence of unconstitutional intent. The legislature established strict transparency requirements, such as publishing emails it received from constituents. And they ordered their staff to base their decisions exclusively on the criteria “adopted by the citizens of Florida.”
The Senate leadership “explained to us at the beginning of the session that because of what happened last cycle, everything had to go through the process,” Sen. Joe Gruters, who is also chairman of the Florida Republican Party, told ProPublica.
In November, the state senator proposed maps that largely maintained the status quo. Analysts predicted they would give Republicans 16 congressional seats and Democrats 12.
“Were they the fairest maps you could draw? No,” said Ellen Freidin, leader of the anti-gerrymandering advocacy group FairDistricts Now. “But they weren’t bad Republican gerrymanders.”
DeSantis wasn’t satisfied. “The governor’s office was very pissed off about the map. They thought it was weak,” said a well-connected Florida Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could be candid. “They thought it was ridiculous to not even try to make it as advantageous as possible.”
In early January, DeSantis’ deputy chief of staff, Alex Kelly, was quietly assigned to oversee a small team that would devise an alternative proposal, according to Kelly’s later testimony.
State employees often spend years preparing for the redistricting process — time that DeSantis did not have. Kelly and his team set about their work. Kelly and his associates brought in Jason Torchinsky from the suburbs of Washington, a Republican election attorney who is one of the top GOP strategists for redistricting across the country.
On Jan. 5, Kelly and two other top DeSantis aides had the redistricting “kick-off call,” according to the meeting invite, which was provided to ProPublicaAmerican Oversight. Torchinsky and Thomas Bryan, a specialist in redistricting, were invited to the event.
Interview with ProPublicaBryan explained the relationship between the national Republican Party (NRP) and his work with DeSantis. “There’s a core group of attorneys that works with the party and then they work with specific states,” he said. “It’s not a coincidence that I worked on Texas, Florida, Virginia, Kansas, Michigan, Alabama.”
He added that the main lawyer he works with is Torchinsky: “Jason will say, ‘I want you to work on this state.’”
A top partner at a conservative law firm, Torchinsky has represented the RNC, the Republican Party of Florida and many of America’s most influential right-wing groups, such as the Koch network’s Americans for Prosperity.
He also occupies a central role in the Republican Party’s efforts to swing Congress in its favor in 2022. Torchinsky is the general counsel and senior advisor to the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the entity the Republican National Committee helped set up to manage the party’s redistricting operations.
The NRRT has millions of dollars in funding, and a list that includes Karl Rove and Mike Pompeo. Earlier this year, Kincaid, the trust’s executive director, summarized its objective bluntly: “Take vulnerable incumbents off the board, go on offense and create an opportunity to take and hold the House for the decade.”
In a statement ProPublica, Kincaid said that the trust is one of Torchinsky’s many clients and that the lawyer’s work in Florida was separate: “When I would ask Jason what was happening in Florida, he would tell me his conversations were privileged.” Kincaid added that he personally did not speak with anyone in the DeSantis administration “during this redistricting cycle.”
Torchinsky’s involvement in the creation of DeSantis’ map has not been previously reported. His involvement in the process appears intimate and extensive. However, details about his contributions are not known. According to invoices sent by the Florida Department of State, he worked for more than 100 hours on redistricting.
Torchinsky held repeated meetings with DeSantis’ team as the group crafted maps and navigated the ensuing political battles, according to documents obtained by ProPublica. And he brought in other operatives who’d worked around the country in priority states for the national GOP.
Torchinsky set up a Zoom call with Bryan, Kelly, and Adam Foltz a week after the kickoff meeting.
Foltz arrived in Florida at the same time Bryan was becoming the go-to mapmaker for GOP. They were seen together in several states where the NRRT was directly involved in last year’s election, causing controversy.
In Texas, Foltz, Bryan and the NRRT’s leader, Kincaid, all worked behind the scenes helping draw mapsAccording to court records, they did. The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Texas after they were done. They claimed that the map violated the Voting rights Act and illegally diluted Black votes and Latino votes. The case is still pending.
Last fall in Virginia, each party submitted three candidates to the state supreme court to guide the state’s redistricting process. The Democrats put forward three professors. Republicans submitted Bryan Foltz and Kincaid. The court’s conservative majority rejected all three Republican nominees, citing conflicts of interest and “concerns about the ability” of the men to carry out the job neutrally.
In a statement, Kincaid said Foltz and Bryan are not partisan operatives and “the Virginia Supreme Court erred” in rejecting them. He also downplayed his own relationship to the consultants, saying they are not “employees or retained consultants” for his group.
“Adam and Tom are two of the best political demographers in the country,” Kincaid wrote. “It would only make sense that states looking for redistricting experts would retain them.”
Foltz, according to court records, had worked his entire career in Wisconsin politics, on Republican state legislatures and on state GOP campaigns, until last year. He was first introduced to redistricting a decade back when he spent many months creating maps that were eventually adopted. notoriously effective Republican gerrymanders. When he testified under oath that partisanship played no role in the Wisconsin process, a three-judge panel dismissed his claim as “almost laughable.”
Bryan was also a relatively new figure on the national scene. Before 2020, he was a “bit player” in the redistricting industry, he said, running a small consulting company based in Virginia. He’d drawn maps for school districts and for local elections, but never for Congress, and he held a second job in consumer analytics at a large tobacco conglomerate.
“In 2020, my phone started going off the hook, with states either asking to retain me as an expert or to actually draw the lines,” Bryan told ProPublica. “I get phone calls from random places, and I’m on the phone with a governor.” While he mostly worked with Republicans, he was also retained by Illinois DemocratsThis cycle, according court records.
Foltz and Bryan’s rapid ascension culminated in Florida. Torchinsky established a third call on Jan. 14 with Foltz, Kelly. DeSantis released his map two more days later.
According to Kelly’s subsequent testimony, Foltz drew the map himself.
“I was completely blindsided,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat on the House redistricting committee. “That is the purview of the legislature.”
Foltz declined to give an interview when she was reached by phone. She also did not respond subsequent requests for comment. Kelly and Torchinsky, who later defended DeSantis’s case against redistricting, didn’t respond to repeated requests.
The House redistricting subcommittee later brought Kelly in to answer questions about DeSantis’ proposals. Before the deputy chief of staff testified, the Democrats’ ranking member moved to place him under oath. Kelly was denied swearing in by Republican legislators.
In his opening statement, Kelly took pains to emphasize that the governor’s office colored within the lines of the Florida constitution.
“I can confirm that I’ve had no discussions with any political consultant,” he testified. “No partisan operative. No political party official.”
This appears to be misleading. Kelly had been invited to at least five calls by Bryan, Torchinsky, and Foltz to discuss redistricting.
DeSantis has as much power in Tallahassee than any governor in recent history. But even after he publicly weighed in with a map of his own, Republicans in the legislature didn’t bow down. The state Senate refused to even consider the governor’s version. They approved their original plan in late January.
DeSantis’ aides argued that Lawson’s district was an “unconstitutional gerrymander,” extending recent precedent that limits states’ ability to deliberately protect Black voting power.
The Florida Republicans were skeptical. House Speaker Chris Sprowls stated to reporters that DeSantis was relying on a “novel legal argument”It was unlikely that lawmakers would adopt.
“In the absence of legal precedent,” Sprowls said, “we are going to follow the law.”
DeSantis increased the pressure on February 11. He held a press conference reiterating his opposition to Lawson’s district. He vowed to vetoAny map that leaves it intact. But he needed to win over Republican policymakers. Again, DeSantis’ top aides turned to Torchinsky.
In February, Torchinsky helped DeSantis’ staff pick out an expert witness to sell the governor’s vision to the legislature, according to emails provided to ProPublicaAmerican Oversight. Torchinsky called Torchinsky before the expert was chosen by the group.
The legislature was faced with a deadline to prepare for November’s midterms and moved towards compromise. In early March, it passed a new bill that was much closer to DeSantis’ version — but still kept a Democrat-leaning district with a large Black population in North Florida.
The governor’s attempts at persuasion were over.
On Mar. 28, Foltz and Kelly had another call, along with a partner at Torchinsky’s law firm. The compromise plan was vetoed by DeSantis the next day.
Many Republicans were shocked, while Democrats were outraged. “A veto of a bill as significant as that was definitely surprising,” Gruters, the state senator and chair of the Florida GOP, told ProPublica.
Kelly soon submitted a slightly modified version of Foltz’s map to the legislature. This time, the legislature took DeSantis’ proposal and ran with it.
Apr. 20, Rep. Thomas Leek, the Republican chair of the House redistricting committee, formally presented DeSantis’ plan before the general assembly. When his colleagues asked him who the governor’s staff consulted while drawing the map, Leek told them that he didn’t know.
“I can’t speak to the governor’s entire process,” Leek said. “I can only tell you what Mr. Kelly said.”
The legislature had required everyone submitting a map to file a disclosure form listing the “name of every person(s), group(s), or organization(s) you collaborated with.” Kelly left the form blank.
The legislature voted on party lines and passed DeSantis’ proposal the next day. Anticipating litigation they also allocated $1million to defend the map in court.
Before DeSantis signed the bill into law a coalition representing advocacy groups filed a lawsuit in state court challenging the map.
They quickly won a major victory. Circuit Court Judge J. Layne Smith, a DeSantis appointee, imposed a temporary injunction that would keep Lawson’s district intact through the midterm elections.
“This case is one of fundamental public importance, involving fundamental constitutional rights,” Smith wrote. Smith cited the long history of Black voter suppression across North Florida and throughout the state in his ruling.
This victory was short-lived. Torchinsky’s firm quickly filed an appeal on DeSantis’ behalf. Then, in a unanimous decision in late May, the appellate court allowed DeSantis’ map to move ahead.
The higher court’s opinion was authored by Adam Tanenbaum, a familiar face in Tallahassee. Until DeSantis appointed him to the court in 2019, Tanenbaum was the Florida House’s general counsel, and before that he was general counsel to the Florida Department of State — both of which were parties to the case.
Tanenbaum’s opinion was issued on the same day. completed an application to fill a vacancyRecords show that the Florida Supreme Court was founded in 1980. Florida’s Supreme Court justices can be appointed by the governor. In this case, DeSantis.
Tanenbaum was not chosen for the position. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The larger case is still pending, and will be decided by the state supreme courts. Every justice on Florida’s supreme court was appointed by Republicans. The majority of them were Republicans. chosen by DeSantis.
The deeply conservative body has already demonstrated its willingness to overturn precedent that’s only a few years old. DeSantis’ senior aides have indicated they hope it will do so here.
During his public testimony, Kelly was asked how Lawson’s district could be unconstitutional when it was recently created by Florida’s highest court.
Kelly responded tersely: “The court got it wrong.”