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Could Eric Eisnaugle’s speakership become a casualty of House gay adoption fight?

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As debate over a bill to protect “religious conscience” — the upshot of which is to prevent gay couples from adopting children — raged for hours Wednesday afternoon on the floor of the House, another battle in the Capitol was just beginning: one that might cost staunch social conservative state Rep. Eric Eisnaugle the 2021-22 House speakership.

Simply put, a coup is afoot in the House.

The immediate cause of the falling-out seems to be a failure on Eisnaugle’s part to deliver a bloc of votes in favor of the controversial proposal that splintered following an amendment filed by another rising speaker and steely éminence grise of the House, state Rep. Richard Corcoran.

But in a story first reported by Jacob Engels of the East Orlando Post, the gay adoption donnybrook may have been the last straw in a growing list of concerns several Republican representatives have expressed with Eisnaugle’s style of leadership. Among them are a perceived lack of responsiveness since securing the designation, which one called a “growing disconnect.”

Though no one seems to have anything resembling a reliable whip count at this juncture, one thing is for sure: the steadfastly religious conservative wing of the party represented by the speaker-designate alone will not be enough to carry the day for Eisnaugle, who is now sporting a grave chink in his armor.

There are a thousand different angles at play here, including complex ties of region and personality. The most pronounced of them is the ever-present tension between Tampa Bay and Orlando.

Sources tell SaintPetersBlog that when members began to grouse about shoddy lines of communication with Eisnaugle, Spring Hill state Rep. and Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia seized the opportunity and put out feelers. Corcoran is said to have tacitly supported the move.

Clearwater state Rep. Chris Sprowls would be an obvious beneficiary of such a gambit, as the well-liked freshman is a strong fundraiser widely seen as an ecumenical figure who can bring folks into the tent along with him. He fell a few votes short of the designation when state Reps. Mike Miller and Bill Young Jr. cast their lots with Eisnaugle.

While I-4 tensions are certainly at play, it’s also more complicated than that. There are levels to this thing.

For instance, the Engels story was likely informed by background provided with his ally former Orlando state Rep. (and former speaker-designate) Chris Dorworth, who in turn is allegedly close with Corcoran, the patriarch of the large and robust Tampa Bay GOP delegation.

Should he be unable to stop the bleeding, a handful of candidates has quietly surfaced in the wake of Eisnaugle’s stumbles along with Ingoglia and Sprowls, namely state Reps. Jay FantMike Hill and Shawn Harrison.

Each would bring a distinct advantage to their possible bids for House speaker.

Harrison and Ingoglia are both Tampa Bay people, first of all, and Harrison is seen as an appealing moderate from a competitive district with more sessions under his belt than his fellow underclassmen, while Ingoglia would have the RPOF machinery at his command, not to mention the hot hand lately.

Should the Tampa Bay plotters decide to bury the hatchet in a final peace agreement with Orlando, the Jacksonville-based Fant would be an ideal choice, especially since Northeast Florida hasn’t had a speaker since John Thrasher.

Meanwhile Hill, the House GOP’s sole African American, is said to have conducted himself savvily throughout the maneuvering and its prelude, withholding a commitment card to any candidate and reportedly gaining a following of likely commits himself.

Harrison took to Twitter to address the developing situation as the House was still in session:

Honored but not sure where this came from. I support my friend . My pledge is my bond,” wrote Harrison.

But as with Pam Bondi’s “definitive” statement that she’s not running for the U.S. Senate, that’s not likely to quell the growing speculation surrounding this volatile intra-party row.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at [email protected]

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