After eight years, Richard Corcoran’s career as a powerful lawmaker is fading fast, but he may be starting a new one as a firebrand candidate for governor.
Nearing the end of an assertive two-year reign as speaker of the Florida House, Corcoran sees his clout diminish almost daily. In a town where power is fleeting, he can no longer dictate policy or cajole his colleagues for votes.
The Land O’Lakes lawyer, an experienced political insider, has now fixed his gaze on the Governor’s Mansion.
He assembled a team of political advisers with successful statewide experience, including pollster Tony Fabrizio, who advised Rick Scott and Donald Trump.
He hired TV ad makers, social media experts, fundraising consultants, a press spokesman and even a travel aide, or “body man” to fetch luggage and open doors.
Corcoran holds weekly meetings with a group of political advisers to develop political and fund-raising strategy. He meets frequently with donors who would be pivotal to his candidacy, such as Miami car dealer and philanthropist Norman Braman.
A renegade by nature, Corcoran likes long odds, and friends say he doesn’t want to leave the political stage quietly. He has penciled in the week of April 16 for an announcement of his candidacy.
“He wants to run, badly,” said Mike Fasano, Pasco County tax collector and a longtime friend.
“He would be a worthy successor to Rick Scott,” said Susie Wiles, a Republican strategist who advised Scott and Trump. “He has the courage of his convictions.”
The latest Quinnipiac University poll in late February said 86 percent of Florida voters did not know enough about Corcoran to have an opinion of him, 75 percent had no opinion of Putnam and 83 percent had no opinion about DeSantis.
Despite low statewide name recognition and a comparative lack of fundraising prowess, he sees a path to the Republican nomination against U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam of Bartow.
DeSantis has Trump’s stamp of approval and a pipeline to Fox News.
Putnam has won two statewide elections and his political committee, Florida Grown, has raised $20 million. That compares to $6.6 million for Corcoran’s Watchdog PAC, more than half of which he has already spent.
Corcoran looks like a long shot, and time and history are not on his side.
He refused to declare his candidacy for governor while also running the House. That would have subjected him to more criticism about his motives.
Corcoran pushed an ambitious agenda as speaker, but his issues of ethics reform, school choice and spending accountability don’t translate easily to bumper-sticker politics, and his curmudgeonly style brought him enemies.
By waiting so long to enter the race, Corcoran has about four months to establish himself as a serious candidate in a huge state with 10 media markets that pose huge challenges to any untested newcomer.
“That puts him at both a political and financial disadvantage,” said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at USF St. Petersburg. “At this point, I don’t see a clear path to victory for Corcoran.”
The primary is Aug. 28, but voters will begin getting mail ballots in mid-July, six weeks sooner. Between 1 million and 1.5 million Republican voters will chose their party’s nominee for governor.
Corcoran can’t win the Republican nomination unless most voters know him, and most of them don’t. The latest Quinnipiac University poll in late February said 86 percent of Florida voters did not know enough about Corcoran to have an opinion of him.
His rivals’ numbers weren’t much better: 75 percent had no opinion of Putnam and 83 percent had no opinion about DeSantis.
Hoping to build name recognition, Corcoran spent about $2.5 million on TV ads that emphasized his opposition to so-called sanctuary cities that protect illegal immigrants who commit crimes. The ads never ran in South Florida, where many Republicans live.
The ads and the immigration issue were quickly eclipsed by the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which 17 people died and 15 were wounded on Feb. 14. Corcoran helped shape the Legislature’s fast response, including a three-day waiting period and minimum age of 21 to buy a gun in Florida.
The NRA blasted House leaders for trampling on the rights of law-abiding gun owners. That spells serious trouble for Corcoran and could undermine his conservative credentials in a Republican primary in which the NRA’s influence is greatest, and where Putnam has labeled himself a “proud NRA sellout.”
However, recent polls show growing support for gun restrictions, including a ban on assault weapons, even among Republicans.
Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said he believes Corcoran will run, and that his support for gun restrictions will help, not hurt.
“I’ve heard that people down here are in favor of that and it’s pretty popular with Republicans that we took action,” Diaz said. “From the lens of South Florida, it strengthened his position.”
But Corcoran is on the wrong side of history, too.
He’s a meteor looking for a crater. He wants to make an impact.
David Johnson, GOP strategist
Over the past 50 years in Florida, most legislative leaders who ran for statewide office failed. The only speaker who succeeded was Marco Rubio, who served from 2006 to 2008 and won a three-way race for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010.
Years earlier, four House speakers became governors, but all did it when Florida was still a backwater, and the Democratic primary was tantamount to the general election. The last was Farris Bryant in 1960, the year John F. Kennedy was elected president.
Still, David Johnson, a seasoned Florida GOP strategist, said Corcoran can’t be so easily dismissed.
“He’s always been an impact player,” Johnson said. “The question for Richard will be fundraising.”
Corcoran may have misfired badly in his first television ad. Johnson said the ad should not have been about sanctuary cities and a man in a hoodie with a handgun menacingly stalking a helpless teenage girl, ending with a grim-looking Corcoran talking to viewers.
Instead, Johnson said, it should have shown Corcoran’s photogenic family, with his wife Anne and their six kids, who in a web-only ad are shown playing backyard touch football.
“But that’s not Richard,” Johnson said. “He’s a meteor looking for a crater. He wants to make an impact.”
Corcoran, 53, has been tested at the polls once in his career. It was the Republican primary for a House seat in 2010 that launched his path to speaker. Corcoran won a three-way race with 5,319 votes. He easily won a Republican primary two years later, but won unopposed in 2014 and 2016, so his name did not appear on the ballot either time.
Corcoran, a lawyer who used his bully pulpit and House subpoena powers to harangue local government programs as speaker, is a natural fit as a crusading candidate for attorney general, a wide-open Cabinet post.
But as he told the Herald/Times weeks ago: “I’d either run for governor or go home.”
Herald/Times staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed to this report.
In the past 50 years, most presiding officers in the Florida Legislature — House speakers or Senate presidents — who ran for statewide office failed. How would Richard Corcoran fare?
Here they are listed by year, name, office and result.
1970: Rep. Fred Schultz (D), U.S. Senate, lost
1972: Rep. Richard Pettigrew (D), U.S. Senate, lost
1982: Rep. Ralph Haben (D), Cabinet, lost
1986: Sen. Harry Johnston (D), governor, lost
1988: Sen. John Vogt (D), Cabinet, lost
1990: Sen. Bob Crawford (D), Cabinet, won
1994: Sen. Ander Crenshaw (R), governor, lost
1998: Rep. Peter Wallace (D), Cabinet, lost
2004: Rep. Johnnie Byrd (R), U.S. Senate, lost
2006: Sen. Tom Lee (R), Cabinet, lost
2010: Sen. Jeff Atwater (R), Cabinet, won
2010: Rep. Marco Rubio (R), U.S. Senate, won
2018: Rep. Richard Corcoran (R) ? ?
Source: Tampa Bay Times research