There was a time when political parties -- at least the Republican Party, to which I’ve long proudly belonged -- didn’t get involved in primary elections, except perhaps when a favored incumbent faced a really tough opponent.
It was generally accepted that candidates would raise their own money, recruit their own volunteers, craft their own message and run their own campaigns. Once the primary was over, however, all bets were off and the party would do its darndest to ensure its candidate won the general election.
But over the years, this process has drastically changed because of legislative leadership races, term limits, the lack of a meaningful two-party system and obscene amounts of money from the party, committees of continuous existence and Super PACs.
Too often, these factors have swayed the elections process from a choice made by local primary voters to a coronation by the political establishment.
Three recent examples help to illustrate the point:
The case of Sen. Jim Norman
Sen. Jim Norman had every intention of seeking reelection to his Senate seat in Hillsborough County, even though his district was significantly changed during the legislative redistricting process, which follows the U.S. Census every 10 years.
From where I sit, three factors played into his sudden departure this week: the Senate leadership battle, a personal ethics case and interference by the Tallahassee establishment.
Norman had committed to support Sen. Jack Latvala of Pinellas County, who hopes to be Senate President during the 2016-18 term. But Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine also wants to be Senate president, and is believed to have recruited an opponent for Norman. Enter Rob Wallace, a former House member and Thrasher’s short-lived choice to replace Norman when it appeared an ethics issue might keep him off the 2010 ballot. Wallace is believed to support Thrasher for Senate president.
The second factor is Norman’s ethics complaint, stemming from his wife’s purchase of a lakefront Arkansas home with money from one of his political benefactors. Knowing of the ethics complaint, legislative leaders still chose Norman as their candidate in 2010, and with their assistance, he defeated his primary opponent. Now, while the accusation against him is not new, his recent guilty plea to the Ethics Commission is.
To complete Norman’s perfect storm, loyalties began to switch. Two other Republican candidates joined Wallace in challenging him. One candidate, state Rep. John Legg, was planning to run in a different Senate race until it became clear that incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford would be strongly supporting his opponent. After deciding to switch districts, Legg also secured Weatherford’s support, an endorsement worth its weight in gold.
With the Tallahassee establishment switching its support, Norman was facing a tough battle. The ability to raise money shuts down quickly when leadership voices support for another candidate.
Ultimately and unfortunately, actions in Tallahassee have more to do with shaping local races than local events.
The unexpected decision of Sen. Ronda Storms
When Sen. Ronda Storms announced she would not seek reelection but instead run for Hillsborough County Property Appraiser, she set off a domino effect among potential candidates. With qualifying approaching quickly, many names surfaced. At the end, two Republicans, a Democrat and a write-in candidate were in the ring.
In the Republican primary, State Rep. Rachel Burgin and former Sen. Tom Lee are battling head-to-head. But instead of waiting for Republican voters to decide, the Tallahassee establishment is lining up behind a single candidate.
First, Senate President-designate Don Gaetz expressed his support for Tom Lee, followed quickly by Sen. Andy Gardiner, who is expected to follow Gaetz as Senate president. Next, popular former House Speaker Allen Bense threw his establishment support to Lee.
Why do three high-profile endorsements -- two from the Panhandle and one from Orlando -- matter in a Hillsborough-based seat? Because it will make it much more difficult for Burgin to raise money from the usual Tallahassee money sources, and it's tough to recruit friends and colleagues who are reluctant to go against leadership. Unfortunately, a good Republican primary candidate faces a disadvantage because of actions within her own party.
Why do high-ranking members of the party get involved in primaries? What is to be gained for local voters, the party or the legislative body? The answer is nothing. It is a matter of control, power and influence.
Connie Mack IV’s Establishment Endorsements
By refusing to debate his primary opponents for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson, Congressman Connie Mack is the most blatant example of a candidate who believes that establishment support is more important than the voters’ support.
Instead of participating in a prime-time statewide televised debate, Mack’s campaign is focused on accumulating high-profile endorsements, with the latest and greatest coming from former Gov. Jeb Bush.
The latest Public Policy Poll shows Mack with 34 percent of the primary vote, LeMieux with 13 percent, McCallister with 10 percent, and former Congressman Dave Weldon with 6 percent. Still, with 37 percent of Republicans undecided, the race remains wide open.
Despite the large number of undecided Republicans, Mack’s campaign manager said: “It’s clear the race for the U.S. Senate in Florida is now between Connie Mack, the Republican, and Bill Nelson, the Democrat.”
Huh? What? Don’t we actually have to hold the primary first? And shouldn’t the voters have an opportunity to hear the candidates debate before they actually cast their votes?
With all this talk of the sanctity of the voting rolls, how about a little focus on the sanctity of casting those votes before a nominee is anointed? Just a thought.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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