TALLAHASSEE -- The road to the future of the Florida Senate goes through Tampa Bay in November.
Some of this year’s fiercest state election fights are likely to occur in the region, mainly because of a job held by someone that’s rarely a household name — the state Senate president.
“After the election this year, you will probably get a sense of the Senate leadership for the next six years,’’ said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is running to be Senate president from 2016-18.
That’s because, due to redistricting, every seat in the 40-member chamber is up for election, and the winners will determine who holds the clout for the next decade.
Latvala, who returned to the Senate in 2010 after being termed out in 2002, wants to make sure that enough returning and newly elected Republican senators support him. He even held a fundraiser to raise money for his political committee, proclaiming the money would go to “the first Senate president from Pinellas County.”
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, is also lining up support for the 2016-18 presidency, albeit more quietly. And Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, says he, too, remains a candidate.
The men are all Republicans but they differ in philosophy. Thrasher and Negron are conservative; Latvala is a moderate. Thrasher forged his reputation as a dominant House speaker who forcefully pushed through former Gov. Jeb Bush’s agenda. Negron began his career in the House and moved to the Senate where he has become a budget and health care expert. And Latvala is a maverick who relishes challenging leadership and forging consensus on thorny issues.
Latvala helped secure the 2014-16 Senate presidency for Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, when Thrasher and Negron lost confidence in Gardiner and attempted to hoist Thrasher to power instead. Now Gardiner, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the designated Senate president for 2012-14, can help determine which candidates align with whom in 2016. The battle is fiercest in Tampa Bay.
Gaetz, for example, on Friday endorsed former Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon, himself a former Senate president, over Rep. Rachel Burgin, also of Brandon, in the District 24 race to replace Sen. Ronda Storms.
Across the state, candidates have until noon next Fridayto declare for office, but, like falling dominoes, the move of one affects another. Take Latvala’s own district. A week ago, he told Gaetz that he was planning to switch from his safe North Pinellas Senate district to Tampa Bay’s reconfigured Senate District 22, which comprises south Pinellas and Tampa.
State Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, who is closely aligned with Latvala, was lined up to run against Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg for District 22. Brandes declared his intent to run Friday. Both Frishe and Latvala each said they are undecided where they will land.
“I’m just pondering,’’ Latvala told the Herald/Times, noting the new District 22 ncludes 80 percent of his current Senate district.
The move is a classic gamble. “Any time you move out of your district to run in another district it adds some element of risk,’’ said Gaetz, who would back Latvala in any race.
If Latvala stays put, he runs the risk of Brandes winning and supporting Thrasher or Negron for Senate president. Brandes, a member of the Cox Lumber family, could easily tap into his personal wealth to spend on his campaign. Brandes has already run TV ads for his state House re-election campaign.