October 13 - Even as Republicans continue to flex their fund-raising muscles and hammer away at President Barack Obama ahead of the 2014 midterm elections, there are a few scant rays of hope poking through the clouds for Florida Democrats.
Sure, the GOP is seen as the favorite to hold onto its majority in the U.S. House — but the decision by Congressman C.W. Bill Young to step aside gives the Democrats a chance for a pickup. And, yes, the Republican majority in the Legislature is also firmly entrenched — but a western Pasco County House seat gives the Democrats a chance to get one step closer to the day that majority ends.
That said, the Republican Party and its elected officials showed this week that they still have the edge in one very important aspect of the political game: Money. As campaign-finance reports came flooding in during the week, the biggest reports still belonged to those with an “R” behind their names.
So even with complications cropping up for Gov. Rick Scott’s past and present legislative priorities, the GOP still seems to have the upper hand.
A round-up via The News Service of Florida.
THE EXPECTED SURPRISE
Guessing when Young would finally call it quits had become something of a parlor game among the state’s political elite. Young, currently in the middle of his 22nd term, is the longest-serving member of Congress from Florida and is 82 years “young.”
Whoever had Oct. 9, 2013, in the pool should collect their prize. That’s when Young told the Tampa Bay Times that he won’t seek re-election in 2014. Young, currently recovering from a back injury, told the Times there were a variety of factors that contributed to his decision to step aside.
“I don’t know that I would pick out one thing,” he said. “It’s a lot of things. My family, my job, my rehabilitation from my back.”
Young, who was once the Senate minority leader in Florida because he was the sole Republican in the upper chamber, had become seen as something of a moderate after the GOP drifted right. Now, Republicans face the task of trying to keep a district that has progressively become a bit more purple in recent years.
The GOP still holds a slight registration edge over Democrats, but independents make up nearly a quarter of voters in the Pinellas County district, and national handicappers have marked it as the only true toss-up among the open seats so far this year.
“It will be harder in that district than probably any other district in Florida to elect a Republican where there has been a long-time Republican in place. It will be a difficult run for whoever tries,” said Tom Slade, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida who helped Young early in his political career.
Young was considered unbeatable in part because of an ability to relentlessly bring home the bacon in his district.
“Everybody there has gone to schools in some Bill Young something or other,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist.
It’s not yet clear who will get the next chance to have the schools in that district named after them. The only declared Democrat in the race so far is Jessica Ehrlich, who challenged Young last time around but could find the field more crowded now that Young is out.
Two lawmakers floated as possible successors essentially ruled themselves out.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, took a shot at Congress’s low approval numbers in a Facebook post suggesting he would take a pass. “And besides who wants to be in a job that is rated less favorably that a cockroach?!” he quipped.
For different reasons, Sen. Jeff Brandes also quashed talk of a congressional run. Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has three children under the age of five, including one who is little more than two weeks old.
“I’ve seen the kind of life that this demands,” Brandes said. “I’m not saying I’m ruling it out forever.”
As long as the next representative doesn’t serve for 22 terms, of course — that’s basically forever in politics.
Meanwhile, a special election was set for another Tampa Bay-area seat, this one in Pasco County. Republican Bill Gunter, a pastor, entered the race as a favorite, but Democrat Amanda Murphy, a financial adviser, claims the endorsement former GOP Rep. Mike Fasano. That election is Tuesday.
REPUBLICAN$ $TILL TOP$ IN CA$H
Lest Democrats get too giddy about their chances for success in Florida, fund-raising reports this week brought a sharp reminder of the political realities in the state. The Republican Party of Florida raked in $5.1 million between July 1 and Sept. 30. The Florida Democratic Party’s haul? $1.44 million.
And that wasn’t all. The three Republicans on the Cabinet — Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam — combined to raise around $1 million in the last three months.
Republican lawmakers also enjoyed big quarters. Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquiso, R-Fort Myers, pulled down $208,462 over the quarter. House Majority Leader Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican slated to become speaker after the 2014 elections, raised $155,183.
And while Scott has yet to formally declare for re-election and has not set up a campaign account yet, the “Let’s Get to Work” political committee that is closely aligned with the governor pulled in $4.4 million. Scott, who depended largely on his private fortune to bankroll his 2010 campaign, looks like he’ll have a lot more help this time around.
UNFINISHED BUSINESS FOR SCOTT
But Scott also needs a little help pushing through and implementing the agenda he’s expected to run on in 2014. And even last year’s items are proving to be a little bit tricky.
A survey presented to lawmakers Wednesday showed that only about 19 percent of Florida school districts have reached agreements with local unions clearing the way for them to dole out Scott’s much-touted teacher pay raises. The $480 million will still make its way to teachers’ pockets — eventually.
“While we were trying to respect the collective bargaining process, it is disappointing that not every teacher has gotten their pay raise,” Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said. “We expect districts to do everything they can to get pay raises done as soon as possible.”
This year, the governor has focused his attention on securing $500 million in cuts to the state’s taxes and fees. A key House Republican in that effort indicated that he was working with that number in mind — but that lawmakers could settle on a different figure.
“I appreciate what the governor put out there,” said House Finance and Tax Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne. “I think he’s got a good round number. But we could see a tax break bigger than that, or, depending on what’s available when the final numbers come out, it may very well be smaller.”
Those final numbers were the size of the state surplus — which could be affected by the federal shutdown and the threat of a potentially catastrophic government default. Scott has hammered Obama for being unable to come to an agreement on those issues with congressional Republicans, part of an emerging political strategy by the governor to blast Obama.
Scott did it again Wednesday, saying Obama needs to delay pending rate increases confronting Florida homeowners who are subsidized through the National Flood Insurance Program.
“The president signed the bill. He can have an impact by stopping this,” Scott said when asked about the possibility of the state getting in the flood-insurance business.
Scott and the Cabinet escalated the fight Thursday, saying Florida would file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a lawsuit filed by the Mississippi Department of Insurance aimed at delaying rate increases in the federal law, known as the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act.
“We’re going to have families lose their homes because their insurance rates are going to go up because the president signed a bill that didn’t make any sense,” Scott said.
In the lawsuit, the Mississippi insurance department contends that the rates shouldn’t go up until FEMA provides Congress with a required affordability study on the increases.
Addressing a U.S. Senate Banking subcommittee Sept.18, FEMA Director Craig Fugate acknowledged that the study may take about two years, but added that Congress would have to fix the law.
“I need help. I have not found a way to delay…without some additional legislative support,” Fugate, a former Florida emergency-management director, told the subcommittee members. “There is no provision for affordability in this law.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: Congressman C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., announced his retirement, capping off a career in Florida politics that lasted more than five decades.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “This is not beauty pageant economics. [If] you’re at the top of the list, you’re at the top of the list. … We’re never going to beat Alaska in their ability to have a unique tax structure of benefit to them.”–Bill Herrle, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business/Florida, on a study by the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation ranking Florida’s business tax climate as fifth-based in the nation.