Fight to control leadership of state Senate looms over this year’s elections

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.

But if Latvala were to win, his reward would be securing his and Frishe’s vote to a Senate presidency victory.

"I don’t think it’s any secret. I’ve publicly pledged my support to Jack Latvala for Senate president," Frishe said. "He and I don’t always agree on everything. But I’ve known the man for 35 years and consider him a friend, and I think having a Senate president from Tampa Bay would be very, very positive for us." Not only is Frishe a personal friend of Latvala’s, but Frishe again is paying for the services of Latvala’s direct-mail company in his race for the Senate.

"There are a handful of seats that will have an impact on the future Senate presidency, and this may be one of them," Frishe said.

Wallace, who served in the House from 1994-2002, is a fiscal conservative who said he hasn’t taken sides between Thrasher and Latvala. He said his own philosophy is closer to Thrasher’s.

“I’m not sure how fiscally conservative Latvala is,” Wallace said.

Jacksonville is another area where the Senate presidency future is at stake. Gaetz, Gardiner and Negron have supported former state Rep. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, while Latvala has supported his opponent, Rep. Mike Weinstein, of Jacksonville, in the Aug. 14 primary.

The Senate leadership’s support of Bean is a payback of sorts. When former Senate President Jim King died, Bean stepped aside so that Thrasher, an ally, could win the seat. He also has the coveted endorsement of former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose TV ads praise Bean as a "principled conservative."

Weinstein entered the Senate race after redistricting would have forced him to move or seek re-election in the House against a fellow Republican, Rep. Charles McBurney, and he’s positioning himself as the only Jacksonville candidate.

The conflict also exposes the power of shadow political committee controlled by Senate leaders Gaetz, Thasher and Negron control a political committee called the Florida Conservative Majority. The organization has given $273,000 to the Liberty Foundation, a electioneering and communications organization that has paid for television ads in support of Bean.

Gaetz said the group has also endorsed three other GOP candidates in open Senate races, Rep. Denise Grimsley of Sebring, Bill Galvano of Sarasota, Dorothy Hukill of Ormond Beach who is facing a tough fight against a Democratic challenger. Another top prirority for Senate Republicans is also a priority for Senate Democrats: the race between Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, against Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, in the newly-draw District 34 in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Another area of conflict is a three-way fight for the Republican nomination for Senate District 17 in Pasco and Hillsborough counties. Sen. Jim Norman of Tampa, Rep. John Legg of Port Richey, and former Rep. Rob Wallace of Tampa have each filed to run.

Norman, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, is considered the incumbent in a seat that redistricting left vastly reconfigured by merging south Pasco with northwest Hillsborough.

Legg, who has served in the House since 2004, had planned to run in Senate District 18 against Pasco County businessman Wilton Simpson, announced two weeks ago he would instead switch to Senate District 17 that now includes half of Pasco County.

He said he and his wife own a home in the district. He was encouraged to run by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and other community leaders who wanted a Pasco native.

Gaetz said Senate leaders, however, will support Norman. Legg understands that but doesn’t believe Norman can win. Two years ago, he overcame a federal investigation and ethics questions about a vacation home bankrolled by a businessman friend for Norman’s wife but his narrow victory was in a Hillsborough-based district.

Legg hopes that Senate leaders will agree. “They told me they wanted to support all incumbents however all incumbents had to show a clear path to victory and Jim Norman has not demonstrated that threshold,’’ he said. He acknowledges, however, that the race is complicated for Latvala, since Legg and Norman have both pledged to support his presidency bid.

“One of his best qualities may harm me — and that is Sen. Latvala is incredibly loyal and I know he and Sen. Norman are incredibly good friends,’’ Legg said.

Latvala, for now, is staying quiet. “No comment,’’ he said.

One thing is clear, Legg said, the road to the future Florida Senate may go through Tampa Bay but it is full of potholes.

“It’s not just sinkholes,’’ Legg said. “The ground is very unstable here for candidates, too.”

Tampa Bay Times reporter Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.