Never in my two decades as a political consultant have I witnessed a political situation move in so many different directions as the entropic developments in the early stages of the race for Congressional District 13.
First-tier candidates thought to have waited years for the opportunity to run for the seat are passing on the chance to do so, while politicians recently defeated at the polls see in the race a shot at redemption. Meanwhile, the state’s most important Democratic woman, Alex Sink, is faced with yet another life-changing decision about whether she wants to return to electoral politics.
Here’s where sh*t stands.
Jeff Brandes and Jack Latvala are definitely out. Definitely. Positively. I’ve had extended conversations with both men and neither are interested in running. This is a shame as Brandes is the best long-term solution for who replaces Young in Congress, while Latvala, with his unique profile of combatant-statesman, is the most natural successor to Young.
Brandes, father of three young children, has to stick close to home. But he also recognizes it’s better to be 1 of 26 in Tallahassee than 1 of 225 in Washington, D.C. Brandes, with politically savvy positions on privacy, red-light cameras, technology, and transportation is becoming a force in Florida’s capital.
As for Latvala, he genuinely believes he can do more good for Pinellas as President of the Florida Senate than as a back-bencher in the U.S. House. It’s very telling that Latvala is passing on a congressional run to remain focused on his bid for the Senate presidency.
With Brandes and Latvala out, Rick Baker is the only other first-tier candidate left in the mix. Baker is being bombarded by inquiries by national GOP leaders to enter the race. He’s met with his top political advisers to weigh the pros and cons. He’s also seen the polls showing that he’s the clear favorite of Republican voters in the district.
But at the end of the day, I don’t believe Baker runs. Running for Congress is not for him. Don’t get me wrong, being a member of Congress would suit Baker fine, but I can’t envision Baker butting heads with Sink now, turning around and running for re-election next November and then raising money every day so he can run for re-election in 2016 and 2018. Four competitive races in five years is anathema to Baker, who last had to run a contentious campaign in 2001.
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps Baker has the fire in the belly for that kind of politics. If he does, I will be his first volunteer and the Angel of Death to his opponents, but I don’t think Rick Baker is walking through that door.
So with the Big 3 on the sidelines, it’s a mad scramble on the Republican side. For now, the field can easily be divided into a list of “Contenders” and “Pretenders.”
First among the “Contenders” is Bill Young, Jr., for no other reason than his name ID. However, let me be clear (while probably causing some consternation among my friends), Billy should not run in this special election. Rather, he should bury his father, and like Caesar, who launched his political career at the funeral of his beloved aunt, declare his candidacy for the State House some time immediately after November 1 (when new campaign finance laws take effect.).
With respect to Young, who, like myself, has lost his father and best friend at the age of 29, he’s not ready to serve in Congress. Tha’s why, up until the events of the last week, he wanted to run for the State House. To earn his political chops. That hasn’t changed, just because Congressman Young has moved on to the Defense Appropriations Committee In the Sky.
Young Jr. will show exactly the kind of maturity needed to be a serious player one day by immediately taking himself out of consideration for CD 13. Of course this is not going to happen, but it’s the best thing to do.
Let me also be clear about something else regarding Young Jr. Despite what he may be hearing from others, HE CANNOT run in this special election, lose, and then turn around and run for the State House. Yes, by law, he can do this, but in doing so, he would squander away whatever advantages he has been bequeathed.
Another “Contender” is former Clearwater mayor Frank Hibbard. If he decides he is in the race, look for Latvala and many of the other elected officials to line up behind him. Hibbard’s running will not sit well with Baker and Co. in St. Petersburg; in fact, the possibility of Hibbard being the nominee may be one of the few factors that could draw Baker into the race. However, Hibbard increasingly appears to be the default choice of the local GOP establishment unsure of who to support with Baker, Brandes, and Latvala not running.
In the “Pretender” column is former State Representative Larry Crow, who still would have been in the “Pretender” category a decade ago when he was still in the Florida House. One cannot be the registered agent and lawyer for a softcore porn website and win a GOP primary.
Also in the “Pretender” column is consultant Nick Zoller, whom I engage with online and on Twitter. Seems like a smart guy, but there is no way he will have the resources to compete in a special election. The only chance someone like Zoller has at winning is with time on his side. That is not the case in a special election. Here’s hoping Zoller runs a race he can be proud of and one that can serve as a stepping stone to a future run in another race.
What about the other names in the mix?
Former County Commission Neil Brickfrield? I actually think Neil is a “Contender” rather than a “Pretender” because of his willingness, were he to run, to do whatever it takes to win. Brickfield’s work ethic may be his best advantage in the compressed time-table of a special election. He’s also palatable to both the local GOP establishment and the more conservative elements. Yes, he was just unseated from his Commission seat because of a horrible vote to stop putting fluoride in the public drinking water, but that may not hurt him in a GOP primary. In past elections, Brickfield has ran well in the parts of his Commission seat which overlap CD 13.
David Jolly? I’m not going to call Jolly — who would be the smartest guy in this field — a “Pretender,” but he knows that in a special election he does not have the time needed to establish himself against Sink.
Michael Pinson, whom the Times’ Adam Smith embarrassingly lists as a possible candidate? Absolute “Contender.” After all, he’s been under consideration for federal office before, right?
Former Sheriff Everett Rice? Short-term he’s a “Contender” but in reality he’s a “Pretender.” He was filleted by Bob Gualtieri in the Republican primary for sheriff after Gualtieri clearly demonstrated Rice was past his prime. Rice almost embarrassed himself in that race with out-of-character statements about the role of government, etc. More important, serving in Congress is a young man’s game. If Rice didn’t enjoy serving in the Florida Legislature a decade ago, he really would not enjoy serving in today’s U.S. House.
County Commissioner Karen Seel? Mostly a “Pretender”. Not for any policy or substantive reason, but because she’s a paper tiger. She doesn’t have a natural base upon which to build a campaign. She just doesn’t have the juice, especially south of Ulmerton Road. Now, if the national GOP folks are dead-set on running a woman against Alex Sink, Seel instantly becomes a “Contender.”
Other names to keep in mind are rising star Brian Aungst, Jr. and Public Defender Bob Dillinger.
As for the Democratic side, the conversation begins with Alex Sink. Is she in the race or not? Confidant Patrick Manteiga, publisher of La Gaceta, wrote last week that Sink is all but decided to run.
And then there is this … a regular source emailed me and said, Ben Diamond’s (another rumored candidate even though nice-guy Ben has lived in Pinellas for all of a week) “mother-in-law says that Alex Sink called Ben personally and told him not to run because she is “’definitely’ running for CD 13. ”
What more proof do you need than from Ben Diamond’s mother-in-law?
I don’t know what Jessica Ehrlich does once Sink enters the race. It’s not that her money will dry up — it won’t if for no other reason than the GOP will use Ehrlich as a club to batter Sink — it’s I don’t know how Ehrlich makes the intellectual argument to partisan Democrats that she is a better candidate than Sink.
Democrats would name their first born after Sink, especially now that she’s been muscled out of the 2014 gubernatorial race. It’s like there’s buyer’s remorse on all sides, from Sink who probably regrets not being able to run and from Democratic voters who were so quick to abandon her for Charlie Crist.
One scenario is that Ehrlich drops out of the congressional race once Sink enters the field so that she can challenge Brandes for his State Senate seat.
However, if Sink doesn’t enter the field, Ehrlich is still not off the hook. I get the feeling Charlie Justice, who ran against for the seat in 2010, is interested in running in the special election, especially since he would not have to resign to run in order to do so.
First things first, please. Governor Rick Scott has to set the date for a special election. After seven months, Scott has yet to fill the LG vacancy in his administration, so it will be interesting to see how quickly he moves on this issue.