by Jason Garcia
Updated 6 months ago
The November general election gets most of the attention, but it’s the August primary that really matters to candidates for the Florida Legislature.
Most of the districts in the 40-seat Senate and the 120-member House have been drawn in such a way that one party holds a significant advantage over the other. Consider: Of the 16 seats opening up this year in the state House, including 11 currently held by Republicans and five by Democrats, only one seat is likely to be competitive in the November general election, according to an early analysis by the business-lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida.
That means the next representative for each of those other 15 seats will essentially be decided in the primary voting on Aug. 26.
Meanwhile, there’s a subplot in several of the primary contests — lawmakers angling for future leadership roles in the House or Senate are supporting primary candidates who in turn have pledged to support them in the leadership races.
In the Senate, for example, the deadlocked contest between Sens. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) and Joe Negron (R-Stuart) to become Senate president after the 2016 elections is echoing in at least one primary. And in the House, several candidates are already maneuvering to become House Speaker following the 2020 elections, including Rep. Eric Eisnaugle (R-Orlando) and Chris Sprowls, a Republican candidate for a Pinellas County House seat. Both Eisnaugle and Sprowls are leaving fingerprints on primary races throughout the state.
Senate District 12 (part of Orange County)
— One of the more controversial members of the Florida Legislature in recent memory is attempting a comeback in this minority-majority district in Orlando. Former state Sen. Gary Siplin (D-Orlando), forced out of office by term limits in 2012, is challenging his successor, Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando), who defeated Siplin’s wife two years ago. Siplin was often mired in ethical controversies while in office, including a conviction for grand theft that was thrown out on appeal. A Siplin win would move the Senate to the right, as he frequently voted with the business lobby and in favor of issues such as private school vouchers.
Senate District 30 (parts of Charlotte, Lee counties)
— Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers) has the advantage in money raised and incumbency but could be vulnerable after losing a tough congressional campaign earlier this year in the race to succeed former U.S. Rep. Trey Radel. Benacquisto drew just 26% of the vote in that race, which was won by Curt Clawson. One of her primary challengers now, Michael Dreikorn, finished fourth in that congressional race with 11%. A Benacquisto defeat would rob Negron of a key supporter in his bid for the 2016 Senate presidency.
House District 5
(Holmes, Jackson, Walton, Washington counties and part of Bay)
— Former state Rep. Brad Drake is the favorite to win the Republican nomination in this GOP-safe seat in the Panhandle that has leadership implications. Rep. Mike Hill, a Republican from Pensacola Beach who, like Eisnaugle, won an early special election and also wants to be House Speaker, is promoting the candidacy of Drake’s opponent, Realtor Jan Hooks. Hill probably needs Hooks if he is to have any chance in his own leadership race. Eisnaugle is supporting Drake. Incumbent Rep. Marti Coley (R-Marianna) is being forced out by term limits.
House District 6 (part of Bay County)
— It’s a four-way freefor- all for the Republican nomination in this Panama City-based seat in the Panhandle. The two frontrunners appear to be Jay Trumbull Jr., a manager of a prominent family-owned water business who is in his 20s and has proven a formidable campaign fundraiser, and Melissa Hagan, a Bay County Republican Party official and former fundraiser for Gulf Coast State College. Mitt Romney carried more than 70% of the vote in this district during the 2012 presidential election, so the winner of the Republican primary is a virtual lock to win the general election. Incumbent Jimmy Patronis (R-Panama City) is termed out.
House District 15 (part of Duval County)
— The race for the Republican nomination in this Jacksonville-based, GOP-friendly seat is shaping up to be one of the most expensive primaries in the state. Banker Jay Fant is well known, though his bid is clouded by the 2012 failure of his family-owned bank, First Guaranty Bank & Trust Co. Of Jacksonville. Meanwhile, business attorney Paul Renner has lined up the support of much of the region’s establishment, including Jacksonville’s chamber of commerce and state Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine). Incumbent Rep. Daniel Davis (R-Jacksonville) agreed not to seek re-election after being hired as the Jacksonville chamber’s president and chief executive.
House District 30 (parts of Orange and Seminole counties)
— In this swing district in the Orlando suburbs, Bob Cortes, the mayor of Longwood and the owner of a tow-truck company, is vying for the Republican nomination against Scott Sturgill, who runs a company that makes traffic-safety products. Both candidates have been raising money and lining up local endorsements. The winner will challenge incumbent Rep. Karen Castor Dentel (D-Maitland) in the general election.
House District 31 (parts of Lake and Orange counties)
— Three candidates appear to have emerged as the strongest contenders in this reliably Republican seat just northwest of Orlando. Terri Seefeldt, a health insurance sales manager, appears to have the most support from business interests. Randy Glisson, a Eustis chiropractor, has raised tens of thousands of dollars from the chiropractic industry, which is anxious to get one of its own back into the Legislature. And Jennifer Sullivan, the 23-year-old daughter of a prominent Tea Party activist, is drawing support from home-school proponents and counts conservative stalwart U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, among her contributors. Incumbent Rep. Bryan Nelson (R-Apopka) is termed out.
House District 40 (part of Polk County)
— The GOP primary in this Lakeland-based, Republican-leaning House seat should be a major battleground in the ongoing tort-reform war between big businesses and trial lawyers. Colleen Burton, a former non-profit executive and consultant, is expected to draw lots of support from business interests. She faces John Hugh Shannon, a personal-injury attorney. This race also appears to be a leadership battleground: Eisnaugle’s camp is helping Burton, while Sprowls supporters are helping Shannon. Incumbent Rep. Seth McKeel (R-Lakeland) is termed out.
House District 44 (part of Orange County)
— Eric Eisnaugle got into this Orange County seat early, thanks to a spring special election to replace former state Rep. Steve Precourt (R-Orlando), who stepped down in a failed bid to become the director of metro Orlando’s tollroad agency. Eisnaugle’s status as a “red shirt freshman” in his class has given him a head start organizing support for his bid to become House Speaker. He should roll to re-election this fall, as he represents one of the most Republican-friendly districts in central Florida.
House District 47 (part of Orange County)
— A pair of promising Republican rookies are squaring off in this district in the heart of Orlando. Mike Miller is the director of marketing and sponsorships for Rollins College athletics and a former Republican aide and fundraiser for former U. S. Sen. Connie Mack, among others. Mo Pearson, the president of an environmental consulting firm, has been helped by some prominent central Florida Republicans, including former state Reps. Chris Dorworth and Steve Precourt. The winner will challenge incumbent Rep. Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) in what will likely be one of the few truly competitive general elections in the state.
House District 61 (part of Hillsborough County)
— The Democratic primary in this African-American majority seat in Tampa is another major businesses vs. lawyers battleground. Ed Narain, an AT&T store owner, has raised money from business giants such as Walt Disney World and Publix Super Markets. Sean Shaw, once the state’s insurance consumer advocate, is a prominent trial lawyer who has served on the board of the Florida Justice Association. Adding to the stakes: The winner here will immediately become the frontrunner for a 2016 opening in the state Senate, where the fate of tort-reform legislation is sometimes decided by one- or two-vote margins. Incumbent Rep. Betty Reed (D-Tampa) is termed out.
House District 65 (part of Pinellas County)
— Most insiders expect the eventual race to become House Speaker will come down to Eisnaugle and Sprowls, thanks in large part to the number of open and competitive races in the Tampa Bay and Orlando regions. Sprowls, an assistant state attorney for the 6th circuit, is expected to breeze to the Republican nomination in this coastal Pinellas County district. But before he can get going on his run for Speaker, he must first beat incumbent Rep. Carl Zimmermann (D-Palm Harbor). Zimmermann upset a controversial incumbent two years ago in former Rep. Peter Nehr (R-Palm Harbor), but the district leans Republican, and he is among the most vulnerable Democrats in the state this year.
House District 74 (part of Sarasota County)
— Julio Gonzalez, an orthopedic surgeon, and Richard DeNapoli, a financial attorney and former chairman of the Broward County Republican Party, are both raising money and lining up endorsements. Their battle for the Republican nomination in this GOP-safe seat in Sarasota County is another race that could impact the House Speakership race, as Eisnaugle boosters are talking up Gonzalez, while Sprowls supporters promote DeNapoli. Incumbent Rep. Doug Holder (RVenice) is termed out.
House District 96 (part of Broward County)
— One of a trio of competitive primaries for Democratic-safe seats in Broward County, this race pits a longtime Broward County commissioner, Kristin Jacobs, against a former state legislator, Steven Perman. Incumbent Rep. Jim Waldman (D-Coconut Creek) is termed out.