Florida Republicans ‘scrambling’ to protect state Senate incumbents

People trying to push Florida’s Republican Party further to the right say the state organization is “scrambling” as it defends a pair of incumbent lawmakers from primary opposition.

The Republican Party of Florida, which declined to discuss its strategy, spent $40,357 the first week of August in four of the five Senate contests in which sitting members have drawn GOP challengers.

Most of the money was spent on internal polling and consulting for the campaigns of Sen. Thad Altman of Rockledge and Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers. Altman is being challenged by Melbourne Beach resident Monique Miller while Benacquisto faces Michael Dreikorn, president of the Bokeelia Civic Association, for the seat in Charlotte and Lee counties.

Miller and Dreikorn are pressing the two lawmakers on issues such as budget spending, undocumented-immigrant tuition and gun rights, as well as hot local issues such as passenger rail service on the East Coast and water quality on both coasts.

“I voted for him last time,” Miller said of Altman, “but I don’t feel like he is the conservative I now want representing me in Tallahassee. His votes are not consistent with core Republican values. He’s not [for] smaller government.”

The Altman and Benacquisto campaigns dismissed suggestions that they aren’t conservative enough for their Republican-leaning districts, citing endorsements from groups such as the National Rifle Association, Florida Right to Life and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

“When I campaign door to door, folks are responding to my proven conservative record and positive campaign message,” Benacquisto said in a statement when asked for comment.

In April, Benacquisto, with the support of the Legislature’s leaders, received about 26 percent of the vote in a four-way GOP congressional primary won by businessman Curt Clawson. Dreikorn, also in the contest, received almost 11 percent of the votes.

“The reason I got involved in the congressional race was I was very upset with the state of government,” Dreikorn told the Fort Myers News-Press when he entered the Senate race in May. “This level of dissatisfaction continues. That dissatisfaction is not just with Washington. It’s with Tallahassee.”

Overall, the state party has spent $269,010 this election cycle on staffing, research, consulting and polling for the two veteran lawmakers, whose challengers have gained traction by positioning themselves, if not as heirs to the tea party movement, as the rightful conservatives in the contests.

How much traction, no one knows. Much will depend on turnout in Tuesday’s primary, which is expected to be light.

The conservative credentials may play a bigger role in the Altman-Miller contest, which is limited to Republicans because a write-in candidate filed to run for the seat.

The Benacquisto-Dreikorn race is an open primary, meaning all voters can cast ballots, because no Democrat or independent is waiting to face the winner in November.

Martin County Republican state committeeman Eric Miller, who has twice been put up as the opposition candidate in state party leadership battles, said the party is being overly protective of incumbents.

“I’m not sure they’re scared, but they’re scrambling,” Miller said. “If you’re spending that much on polling, you’re sticking your finger in the air to figure out what your message is.”

While party officials maintained they do not discuss election strategy, University of Florida political science Professor Dan Smith said the party’s strategy of “protecting team players” is not unusual.

“The bigger question is, is there any potential risk to the party?” Smith said. “There is always outside risk, but it doesn’t happen very often.”

As an example, Smith noted that in 2010, Rick Scott, a former healthcare executive, used his own money and the momentum of the tea party movement to take on the establishment-backed Bill McCollum, who at the time was state attorney general, for the Republican governor’s nomination.

Four years later, Scott now carries the party banner as he seeks reelection.

Tim Pishdad, Altman’s campaign manager, expressed concern that polarizing stances from some people claiming libertarian and tea party leanings could fracture the party and help Democrats at the polls and in the Legislature.

“Many of those folks have not worked in government to understand that you have to work with 39 other senators to work on the people’s business, and not all 39 are ‘far right enough,’ ” Pishdad said in an email. “So a compromise to make sure solid principles are maintained without giving up the ‘baby with the bathwater’ is seen by the ‘far right’ [as] defeat and reversal of your conservative principles.”

Eric Miller said the latest grassroots opposition to incumbency is more a sign of dissatisfaction with both parties. He said people increasingly register without party affiliation and that the positions espoused in Tallahassee and Washington need to change.

“I couldn’t point to specific emotions, but people in both parties are tired of being told what the establishment thinks they want to hear,” he said. “People are hurting economically, they’re starting to see the effects of not being involved in a representative government, and they’re waking up.”

The state Republican Party of Florida did not reply directly to Eric Miller’s comments.

Instead, Susan Hepworth, RPOF communications director, issued this comment: “Senator Altman and Senator Benacquisto have done a wonderful job representing their constituents, and if they come out of their primaries on top, we are confident they’ll continue doing a great job representing their districts.”

Asked whether the party had concerns about Monique Miller or Dreikorn, Hepworth replied, “no concerns at all.”

Altman, meanwhile, is among a small group of state lawmakers who have been targeted by the Colorado-based National Association for Gun Rights, which failed in 2013 to get Scott to veto an NRA-backed law that blocks firearms purchases by some people who voluntarily admit themselves for mental-health treatment.

A flier by the group was directed this week at Altman, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and others. The mailer claims the law would “strip veterans and other law-abiding citizens of their right to bear arms without due process or trial.”

Monique Miller agreed with that sentiment, saying the law could force “military heroes as they return from battle into a position where they would have to choose between seeking help and owning a gun for the rest of their lives.”

The party money spent in early August included in-kind contributions for internal polling for Negron, who is positioning himself to be Senate president in 2016, and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

The party’s financial attention comes as the primary challengers to Altman and Benacquisto have combined to raise $61,299 through Aug. 8, most of which they have already spent.

A big chunk of that money was $40,000 that Monique Miller, a former strategic account manager for Hewlett-Packard, lent to her own campaign.

Meanwhile, in addition to the party’s in-kind assistance, Benacquisto had raised $663,910, of which more than $580,000 had been spent. Altman had picked up $256,945 in addition to the party support. He had already spent $187,296.

“At the end of the day it’s the people who decide, not the party,” Monique Miller said. “It’s not going to come down to the money. If [Altman] had done a good job, he wouldn’t have to raise this much money to keep it.”