Democrats thwart GOP’s state Senate strategy


Top fundraisers for a handful of state Senate seats thought they could coast to victory and give money to the GOP, until Democrats surprised them with opponents

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

A half-dozen Republican Senate candidates were on the verge of winning new terms without opposition — until the Democrats saw an opening.

Democrats concede they don’t have a realistic chance of winning the seats. But by fielding little-known candidates at the last minute, they were able to freeze the ability of those Republicans to make large donations to the state GOP in a crucial election year.

As the deadline drew near for candidates to pay money and be listed on the ballot this month, several Republican Senate candidates were within an eyelash of taking office unopposed, without a single vote being cast. You could almost hear the champagne bottles popping.

Every one was sitting on a mountain of campaign cash in hopes of scaring off competition. But one by one, in rapid succession, each drew last-minute Democratic opposition, seemingly from out of nowhere.

They include Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, running for an open seat, who had raised $749,000 through March (the next reporting deadline is July 10); Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who raised $513,000; Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, $473,000; Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, $442,000; Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, $428,000; and Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, $397,000.

Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, incoming leader of Senate Democrats, knew that when the qualifying period ended, candidates can donate unspent money to their political party, on one condition: They have to be unopposed.

That meant the Republican Party of Florida was on the cusp of an infusion of some $2 million from unopposed Senate candidates, money that could put to good use in more competitive races.

Smith has no illusions of knocking off the well-financed Republicans in solid GOP districts. But by fielding candidates, he was able to tie the financial hands of the GOP.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the likely next Senate president, didn’t think much of Smith’s move.

“I’m disappointed that my Democratic friends are so crass as to make this about money, as opposed to choices,” Gaetz said. “I’m sorry the Democrats had a financial motive, a cynical motive, in putting candidates in these races.”

Smith was coy about his motivations.

“We just felt that people should stand for election,” he said. “A lot of Democrats around the state got tired of us not fielding candidates in so many races.”

Asked if his true goal was to limit the GOP’s flexibility in spending campaign money, Smith said: “I’m not going to comment on that. That’s for speculation.”

Republicans currently hold a commanding 28-12 advantage in the Senate.

The redrawing of all Senate district lines appears to give the Democrats a realistic chance of gaining up to three more seats.

Smith noted that in the last reapportionment election year of 2002, there were 13 Republican senators who were elected with no opposition. This year, that number dwindled to six.

For Florida Democrats, that’s called progress.

It was no coincidence that three Republican senators in Miami-Dade did not draw opposition.

Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Anitere Flores and Rene Garcia simply didn’t raise enough campaign money to warrant Smith’s attention. So Democrats decided to leave them alone.

Veteran Democratic strategist Steve Schale says it’s also smart politics to force the other side’s candidates to concentrate on campaigning at home, so they have less time to travel the state to help their more endangered colleagues.

“It’s a perfectly logical political strategy,” Schale said.

Said Gaetz: “I was disappointed in my friend Chris Smith’s tactics, but it’s his right to do so.”

Steve Bouquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com

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