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Primary elections did little to unscramble House Speaker race

in Peter/Top Headlines by

August’s primary elections did not produce a breakthrough for any of the contenders in the behind-the-scenes, internecine scrum to one day lead the Florida House of Representatives.

Instead, the race to be House Speaker in 2022-24 has settled in for a long slog which may not be decided until, at the earliest, 2018. And, according to a handful of the insiders who truly understand how a leadership race works, the eventual winner may not even be one of the current leading contenders.

Adding more drama to the situation is how the next two Republican House leaders — Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran and Speaker-to-be Jose Oliva — have explicitly articulated their disdain for the current tradition of electing a future House Speaker, the second-most powerful position in state government, so early in a lawmaker’s career.

Each class of House members selects a leader from among its ranks to serve as Speaker during their fourth and final terms. Depending on next month’s election results, the incoming class of Republicans should number about 28.

Paul Renner of Northeast Florida, Randy Fine of Melbourne Beach, and James W. “Jamie” Grant of Tampa are widely considered to be eyeing the top spot in the Florida House. These ambitions are based, in part, on the assumption that Republicans will still be in the majority six years from now.

Of course, there’s no paperwork to fill out that declares one’s candidacy for the speakership. In fact, Fine is not yet even a member of the Legislature. But there’s no disputing the three men have ambitions to lead their colleagues.

Presiding officers are selected by members of each class of lawmakers, often many years in advance of when they will serve. Members elected to complete part of a term — so-called redshirt freshmen — are able to serve longer than the rest of their class and typically have an advantage in leadership races over the rest of their class. Past Speakers Tom FeeneyMarco Rubio, and even Oliva himself benefited from that advantage.

Both Renner and Grant are considered redshirt freshmen, although Grant may be in a class by himself because he was elected in a special election after a protracted legal struggle involving a write-in candidate. Some might argue — in fact, we’re sure the Florida Democratic Party will strenuously argue if Grant one day becomes the Speaker-designate — that he should not be able to serve in the House for as long as he has.

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If there’s any such thing as a front-runner in this race, Renner may be it. He’s more of a known quantity in Tallahassee than Fine and his legal standing is not in jeopardy like Grant’s (again, more on that later). His bid to be Speaker has been written up by the Florida Times-Union and Florida Trend.

However, as the fate of state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle has demonstrated, today’s frontrunner for the speakership can be tomorrow’s also-ran.

Eisnaugle, a Republican who represents the Orlando area, was long thought to be the front-runner until reports emerged that some of his colleagues said he became aloof and disconnected from the membership after winning a majority of pledges. Chris Sprowls appeared to clinch the 2020-22 speakership race when two Republicans — Renner and Orlando Rep. Mike Miller — switched their support from Eisnaugle to Sprowls.

More than one political consultant, most with at least part of a horse in this race, have suggested Renner abandoned Eisnaugle to keep alive his own bid for the Speaker’s office.

But one of the legs of Renner’s platform was knocked out from underneath him during the primary elections.

Regional leaders had made electing a Speaker from northeast Florida a priority.

“We believe that Jacksonville is poised to present a candidate for Speaker, and we recognize how important that is for our economy,” lobbyist Deno Hicks told Florida Trend’s Jason Garcia in May of 2015.

At the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, many thought Renner would be able to bring to the table as many as six pledges from northeast Florida. But this is no longer the case.

In House District 11, Renner’s horse, Sherri Treadwell, lost to Cord Byrd, who some suggest will back Grant because they share many of the same political allies. And in House District 16, Renner was perceived to be playing all sides by having his surrogates back Dick Kravitz against eventual winner Jason Fischer.

And, as blogger Brian Burgess first pointed out on his site The Capitolist, Renner also hurt himself with two of his most prominent Jacksonville allies by endorsing Angela Corey‘s losing re-election bid.

Yet, the Speaker’s race is not a zero-sum game. Although Renner’s position is no longer as strong, neither Fine nor Grant have been able to improve their hand much.

Some of this is due to the fact that Corcoran and Oliva, working in conjunction at an unprecedented level, have made it clear that overt campaigning for the House’s top spot is bad form.

Earlier this year, the next two leaders of the House of Representatives urged Republican candidates in open House seats to not be “distracted” by the inside-baseball games of future House Speaker races. In fact, Corcoran and Oliva said it was premature for Republicans not even elected to the Legislature to be worried about who will lead them in the next decade.

“We are encouraging you in the strongest possible terms to postpone these conversations until after you are elected,” Corcoran and Oliva wrote in a memo to Republican House candidates.

Nevertheless, the off-the-grid campaigning by Renner and Fine continued unabated. Grant, thought to be the preferred choice of Corcoran, took a more laissez-faire approach to engaging in GOP House primaries.

“Picking a leader should not be about being fast or being pressured, it should be about being deliberate, having the opportunity to first serve together as a class, and ultimately getting it right,” Grant explained.

But make no mistake, Grant is working. It’s just that he seems to be doing it behind additional layers of plausible deniability than Renner or Fine.

Fine went so far as to hold a fundraising reception for several House candidates thought to be supportive of his bid to be Speaker, although the Brevard Republican denied that was what happened.

“(That fundraising reception) should not be construed as Team Fine, as there will never be a Team Fine,” he explained. “There will be a team that Randy Fine is a member of and seeks to serve, should I be so fortunate to be sent by the voters of southern Brevard County to Tallahassee.”

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Examining the results from the GOP House primaries, it appears Fine very much still has a seat at the game, while Renner took one step forward and two steps back. That’s because, as one GOP strategist who has worked for a House Speaker explained, Renner is making the mistake of assuming he’s got a pledge simply because he financially supported a candidate.

So how did Renner, Fine, and Grant do in the primaries? Here’s a rundown.

HD 4: Renner’s pick, Mel Ponder, won the four-way primary to take over for exiting Rep. Matt Gaetz, and is the de facto winner of the general, with his only competition coming from a write-in candidate.

HD 21: Chuck Clemons won by 10 points over Wenda Lewis in the Republican Primary, though he received support from both Renner and Fine in the race to take over for Rep. Keith Perry. Several sources indicated Clemons is definitely a Renner pledge.

HD 52: This one is a wash. Neither Renner’s candidate, Brian Hodgers, or Fine’s candidate, Monique Miller, were able to come up with a win against Thad Altman, who is taking the rare step of returning to the House after hitting term limits in the Senate.

HD 54: Another bust for Renner, who invested heavily in Lange SykesErin Grall had a decisive win with about 42 percent of the vote compared to a little under 25 percent of the vote for Sykes in the four-way primary.

HD 60: A big win for Grant and Fine, who backed Jackie Toledo over Rebecca Smith. Toledo won by 2 points over Smith, largely seen as the establishment favorite. Renner didn’t deign to dip his toe into this race.

HD 72: Another split, or maybe even a bust. Both Fine and Renner backed Alex Miller, who won big over John Hill, though there’s still a possibility this longtime Republican seat ends up in the hands of Democrat Edward James III, despite his recently revealed scandal.

HD 73: Renner thinks he picked up a win here by backing Joe Gruters, who bested Steve Vernon by less than two points on Election Day, but Gruters is going to extract as much as he can before he pledges to anyone.

HD 106: Another split. Bob Rommel won the three-way primary for the seat with 51 percent of the vote compared to 33 percent for Lavigne Kirkpatrick and 15 percent for Nick Ballo. While Renner stepped in with support, Fine was there first.

Of course, financial support doesn’t translate 1-to-1 to votes for House Speaker, but looking at Renner’s main targets, he only has a couple races where he staked a claim early on the eventual winner. The same could be said for Fine, too.

In addition to these races, the two both backed Frank White in HD 2, Jayer Williamson in HD 3, Byron Donalds in HD 80, and John Couriel in HD 114, among many others, giving none of the candidates a distinct edge this far ahead of 2022.

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The primary elections, then, did little to unscramble the current race to be Speaker. In fact, if you explore further the web of campaign finance connections, it appears both Renner and Fine played multiple sides in multiple GOP primaries.

Most insiders believe the race is on hold for now, if for no other reason than “NONE of them will buck Corcoran or Oliva anytime soon,” as one GOP pollster tracking the race pointed out.

A third dynamic is the personality of the class itself. There are members beyond Renner, Fine, and Grant who others suggest might make a good Speaker. The Panhandle’s Frank White and northeast Florida’s Jason Fischer are two of the names which come up with increasing frequency.

Also, when a legislative class possibly also includes veteran politicos like Gruters, the Sarasota GOP Chairman, and/or former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, the wheeling and dealing for pledges in exchange for plum committee assignments or responsibilities won’t really begin until all of the members are elected and can size each other up on the House floor.

What is almost certain about this otherwise nebulous situation is that this Speaker’s race, like the Eisnaugle vs. Sprowls contest before it, is increasingly complex and may take longer to decide than the four years it took for Allan Bense to lock in the leadership role.

Meanwhile, the days of when a future Speaker is recognized hours after Election Day — as was the case with Oliva in 2014 — are over.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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