One month ago the Republican Party of Florida’s Sunshine Summit was in the news for reasons other than those intended. With only former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio committed to appear before those gathering on November 13 and 14, some drastic action to boost participation was contemplated.
Those presidential candidates failing to appear in Orlando would also not appear on the Republican primary ballot next spring. Reaction to this tactic was mostly negative from outside the party apparatus (and some within), including this space.
Campaigns should have the ability, we argued, to make their own decisions without coercion on where and when to campaign. Critics understood Gov. Rick Scott’s disengagement from the party prompted the need to raise significant funds at events like the summit. The tactics just seemed heavy handed.
What a difference a month makes. Instead of requiring an appearance, the party approved other ways of qualifying for the ballot, including obtaining signatures from each congressional district or paying a $25,000 fee.
Obtaining signatures from voters in each congressional district would be a cumbersome process. The fee might seem steep, but RPOF Chairman Blaise Ingoglia correctly reminded everyone that South Carolina requires $40,000 to get on that state’s ballot. What’s more, candidates in the South Carolina primary do not have the option of appearing at a summit in lieu of forking over donors’ money.
Perhaps all of this turned into a wake-up call. RSVPs flowed into the party. Currently, 12 speakers have committed to make their case before summit attendees and donors.
Dr. Ben Carson sent his regrets early on and that has not changed. He is the only one of the top tier of presidential hopefuls still planning to be elsewhere. Former New York Gov. George Pataki and former Virginia Gov. (and Republican National Committee Chairman) Jim Gilmore are the other two skipping the event.
On Wednesday, the RPOF released the agenda. The first speaker is Rubio, while the final two on the first day are Bush and current front runner Donald Trump.
Rubio and Bush will almost certainly lay out their positions on immigration, education, taxes, the economy and foreign policy. Attendees should expect to hear Trump send them to dinner after pledging to hire the best people, have an amazing economy and build a wall on the southern border using Mexico’s money.
Some will argue that by going first, Rubio may be forgotten by the time the final speakers, especially Trump, take the stage. That could be true of average speakers, but Rubio is one of the clearest communicators the Republican Party has to offer.
There is little chance that what he says will be that quickly forgotten, at least by attendees. The news media, on the other hand, can be expected to chronicle all of Trump’s words of wisdom.
Bush will also be a huge favorite among many in attendance. He should again remind everyone, especially conservatives, that he governed like one of them while in office.
The second day features a line-up consisting mostly of those in the middle or bottom of the pack. Someone like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie can wake up a crowd, but many will stay around to hear the last speaker.
Organizers were smart to put businesswoman Carly Fiorina in the final slot. Debate watchers saw her in action last month, but she also connects with people while speaking solo. Fiorina is on par with Rubio in that regard.
Ingoglia and the RPOF were right that candidates would be well-served by appearing in Florida, specifically at the Summit. In the end, the same 12 committing today would likely have done so without the threat of losing ballot access.
The party wound up with a viable solution and a full agenda. The final question is, will Carson show up in the end, or is the check in the mail?
Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. Column courtesy of Context Florida.