Matt Gaetz about to draw a serious challenger for Senate race in George Gainer

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While Tallahassee is buzzing today with news that Jeb Bush will officially launch his presidential campaign June 15, Adams Street is also buzzing with talk that state Rep. Matt Gaetz is about to draw a serious contender in the race for State Senate District 1.

Bay County Commissioner George Gainer, a Republican, is expected to file to run in the Panhandle seat presently held by Gaetz’s father, Don.

Gaetz versus Gainer would shape up as a proxy fight between state Sens. Joe Negron and Jack Latvala in their death-match to become president of the Florida Senate in 2016. Gaetz has already pledged his support to Negron, while Gainer would almost certainly benefit from the support of Latvala and his political committees.

As late as February, Gaetz appeared to be a lock to succeed his father into the Senate. Through April 30, the third-term lawmaker has raised more than $564,000 for his campaign. Gaetz’s fundraising prowess was one of the reasons why popular former lawmaker Jimmy Patronis dropped out of the Senate District 1 race in 2013.

While Gaetz would still be the frontrunner against almost any opponent, his fortunes seemed to have turned after he made a controversial statement on Twitter that drew rebukes from not only his political opponents, but also from House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and fellow House colleague Mike Hill.

Remarking that the a lawsuit filed by Florida Senate Democrats in the Florida Supreme Court “rea(d) like it was “researched and drafted by Sen. Joyner and spell checked by Sen. Bullard.”

It’s not clear what Gaetz meant by the remarks about Senate Minority Leader SenArthenia Joyner, a former Bar Association president, and Sen. Dwight Bullard, a high school teacher, but the posting caught the ire of several legislators. POLITICO’s Marc Caputo noted that Gaetz “is on his way to offending a quorum of the Florida Senate.”

Even before that incident, Gaetz, a brilliant orator respected by even his opponents for his ability to rally supporters to his causes, has forged a mercurial career in Florida politics.

For every legislative success like his effort to make Charlotte’s Web available to sick children, there has been a controversial statement or tactic.

A graduate of Florida State University and the College of William and Mary law school, Gaetz won his first campaign at age 28 during a 2010 special election to replace former House Speaker Ray Sansom, who resigned after he was accused of scheming to get $6 million in state money to pay for a hangar at the Destin airport for developer Jay Odom.

The first tweet criticizing Gaetz for his attack on Joyner and Bullard, the Florida Times-Union’s Tia Mitchell noted, was by Sen. Latvala. “This is absolutely disgraceful for a public official to say!” he tweeted.

Latvala has been working for months to recruit a candidate to run against Gaetz, who, in turn, has been critical of the longtime Pinellas legislator. Both men recognize that the road to the Senate presidency likely travels through the Panhandle.

Latvala recently acknowledged that Negron is likely leading him in pledges among their Republican colleagues. Latvala’s best chances of success involve him holding his pledges, while knocking off one or two of Negron’s supporters.

With Gainer’s forthcoming entry into the race, Latvala finally has a stalking horse to challenge Gaetz.

Gainer is exactly the kind of contrasting candidate Gaetz probably doesn’t want to face. He’s experienced, he can self-fund and he’s from the Bay County part of District 1 where Gaetz is not as strong.

Gainer began his career in the automobile business in 1966 and is currently owner of Bay Lincoln Mercury Dodge Hyundai, Bay Suzuki, and Bay Ford in Blounstown.

Gainer is a member of the Panama City New Car Dealers Association and past officer of the Chrysler and Ford Dealer and Advertising Councils. Gainer is past president of the Birmingham Automobile Association.

He is also a member of various civic and professional associations including the Bay County Chamber of Commerce, Panama City Beaches Chamber of Commerce and Military Affairs Committee.

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.