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Florida Senate Poised to Make a Shift to the Right

The Florida Senate could be poised for a major power shift, with a potent bloc of moderate Republicans likely weakened by departures and intra-party rivalries.

The changes are already underway, lawmakers and lobbyists say.

Republican Sen. Joe Negron’s victory this week in a special election to replace outgoing Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, is expected to tilt the seat slightly more to the right. And another special election this fall to replace the late Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, could result in the election of former Republican House Speaker John Thrasher, whose political history makes him clearly more conservative on social and budgetary issues than King was.

GOP moderates have long formed a key voting bloc in the Senate, with a 2005 vote against intervening in the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case being perhaps the group’s most high-profile moment. But business organizations also are looking at the moderates’ flagging numbers as clearing a path for more corporate-friendly legislation.

“There could be a real sea change in the Florida Senate in 2010,” said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida. “It bodes well for the free-enterprise community.”

Bishop blamed a handful of Senate moderates for making close a 2006 vote to give deep-pocket companies added safeguards against lawsuits and this spring’s narrow victory by business groups seeking lower workers’ compensation rates. A so-called streamlined sales tax proposal sought by business groups has failed to advance because of lack of support in the Senate, Bishop said.

“A few more seats going our way can make a real difference,” Bishop said.

The number of Senate moderates varies with the issue and the year, usually from a half-dozen to at times as many as nine centrist senators voting alike, and often with Democrats. The chamber has been controlled 26-14 by Republicans since 2002, with the party’s caucus now at 25 following King’s death last month.

Term limits next year, however, are removing Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, a central player in the moderate wing. Such other occasional allies as Sens. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, and Victor Crist, R-Tampa, also will depart through term limits.

Republicans are hoping to return former Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor. While he was a moderate during his 1994-2002 Senate tenure, he is now running for Democratic Sen. Charlie Justice’s seat, so if he wins, that seat tilts right.

A Republican Senate primary shaping up in South Florida between former Rep. Sharon Merchant and Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Wellington councilwoman, is dividing the party – with moderates lining up behind Merchant and more conservative Republican senators backing her rival.

But in most of the other Republican seats being left by moderates, a more conservative Republican is considered the frontrunner, analysts say.

Moderates returning include Sens. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, and Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach.

Senate leadership also is expected to tip more conservative under Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who is in line to become Senate president if, as expected, Republicans maintain their majority following the 2010 elections. Haridopolos won the contest for president over the more moderate Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, with the two men pledging now to work together.

Senate history suggests, however, that leadership rivalries often leave the loser and his supporters in the political doghouse for the two-year presidency.

“Certainly some of the players might change,” Jones said. “But I think any rivalry between Haridopolos and Bennett will die down. The presidency was decided early enough that there was not a lot of bad feelings.”

Haridopolos and expected 2010 House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, could form a potent conservative pairing at the top of the Legislature, according to those tracking elections.

“I think there is concern that the leadership in the Senate is beginning to look similar to that in the House,” Dockery said. “The Senate has always been more deliberate, independent and about finding the middle ground. I hope that’s not changing.”

Lobbying groups that draw their own strength from Democratic allies and middle-of-the-road Republicans also are worried.

“We’re concerned,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “We may begin seeing some of the changes next spring with two new Republican senators (Negron and possibly Thrasher) coming in.”

Senate Democrats, though, also see a campaign theme emerging if the Republican majority threatens to lean further right.

“We have been saying that we want to create a better balance next election,” said Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, who is leading her party’s Senate campaign efforts. “That means a better balance between Democrats and Republicans. And if Republicans look to become more conservative, that give us a better contrast for our candidates.”

3 Responses »

  1. I would ask Nan Rich of Weston her opinion of the National stage. where we see what happens when Democrats gain more "balance". My concern is we have enough of that brand of balance coming out of Washington.

    Next I would ask her opinion on Nationalized Health Care. I'm sure this is a subject Florida Democrats want to get on board with- especially in an election year. . .

  2. When a party's radical element draws it away from the ideological center, it becomes marginalized and loses general elections. That's obviously taken place at the national level. Will the Florida Republican Party will follow the national GOP over the same cliff?

  3. Glad the election is already decided. Let's crown John Thrasher and save the cost of the election.