As he takes aim at the Governor’s Mansion, House Speaker Richard Corcoran has to get a lot more attention.
He did it with a TV ad that points a gun barrel at the viewer to dramatize the danger of illegal immigration — a hot-button issue for conservatives.
After the ad debuted, critics called Corcoran a race-baiter, a fear-monger and a liar. But he got people’s attention, and from his obscure perch at the state Capitol, that was the point.
“He’s got to run around screaming the loudest,” says Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist. “If the goal was to get into the conversation, it worked.”
The most aggressive House speaker in decades is mixing hard-right politics and modern messaging to reshape government, while fighting for the traction he needs if he makes a longshot bid for the Republican nomination for governor.
Far more than most of his predecessors, Corcoran uses the levers of power as speaker to send direct appeals to Republican primary voters via the floor of the House, a state website, on TV and on social media.
“We’re governing this state specifically to placate Republican base politics,” says Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democrat from Orlando. “It’s not only bad public policy, but it’s wrong and short-sighted.”
Yet for all of his prowess as House speaker and political messenger, the 52-year-old Land O’Lakes lawyer has a major drawback to overcome: Hardly anyone outside of Tallahassee knows who Richard Corcoran is.
A new statewide poll shows a full 70 percent of Republicans didn’t recognize his name.
That gives him little chance against rivals Ron DeSantis, who has a pipeline to Fox News’ conservative audience, and Adam Putnam, who easily won two statewide elections.
Corcoran has spent years crafting an agenda to please conservative voters who will pick the party nominee in August.
On education, he favors an expansion of for-profit charter schools, despite lawsuits from school districts, and taxpayer-funded vouchers for students victimized by bullying.
On taxes, he and the House approved a two-thirds “super-majority” vote to raise state taxes and fees, an idea popular with fiscal conservatives on top of last year’s support that asks voters to raise the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000.
He wants limits on cities’ and counties’ home rule powers, less reliance on property taxes for schools, less spending on tourism, an end to “corporate welfare” subsidies for sports stadiums and new restrictions to prevent politicians from enriching themselves while in office.
He’s pushing a bill that opponents say could abolish local teacher unions, which makes up the base of the Democratic Party, and another slice of red meat to serve Republican crowds.
Asked how much his political advisers shape his policies, Corcoran said: “Zero. My legislative agenda is all the stuff we’ve been talking about for years,” a reference to a manifesto he and other lawmakers wrote in 2012, a year before he became speaker.
But the trappings of his public office promote Corcoran, the possible candidate. The official House web site prominently features Corcoran and video clips of him pressing his agenda with bold, campaign-style graphics.
The speaker has a camera-ready staff that helps him get on the 6 o’clock news regularly, especially in the Tampa Bay and Orlando markets on the I-4 corridor. Over the summer, he huddled privately with small focus groups of GOP voters in Tampa, Jacksonville and elsewhere and tested various messages.
Corcoran knows the state’s political history. Nearly every legislative leader who has sought higher office has failed.
He could be next.
The former back-room political operative realizes many people don’t know him or pay attention to the Legislature, so he has to amp up the volume.
The backlash against his TV ad, which came from the worlds of politics, academia and law enforcement, earned him the attention he desperately needs.
In an unusual strategy for a non-candidate, he’s spending more than a half-million dollars on air time from his $6 million political committee funded by wealthy GOP donors, lawyers and PACs controlled by fellow House Republicans.
With a lopsided 76-40 Republican majority in the House, Corcoran can drive the agenda and the Democrats can’t stop him.
Days before the ad hit the airwaves, Corcoran steered legislation through the House to ban so-called sanctuary cities in Florida, which don’t exist here. The idea met an abrupt end a few days later as two Miami-area Republicans said they couldn’t vote for it in the Senate — one place in Tallahassee where Corcoran is not in control.
Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a Corcoran ally, said the speaker is not posturing for political gain and the sanctuary city ban is a policy many House members demanded.
The ad is not airing in South Florida, the state’s most diverse region, where the message is less well-received, even though that area is home to more Republican voters than any other media market in the state.
Sheriff Michael Chitwood of Volusia County in Daytona Beach said the ad distorts reality.
“That ad absolutely stirs racism and fear,” said Chitwood, an independent from a medium-sized “swing” county that’s important in statewide elections. “If you go through the state of Florida, sure, you’re going to find an immigrant who’s committed a crime, who was arrested and prosecuted and needs to be deported. But by the same token, I have people in my own community who were arrested 20 and 30 times for crimes of violence who were born and raised in the state of Florida.”
Corcoran will have a chance to defend the ad. On Tuesday night, he’ll debate Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor and has denounced the ad.
That translates to more free air time for Corcoran. The debate will be aired in Tampa Bay on Bay News 9.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com and follow @stevebousquet.