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The Buzz: Florida’s political winners and losers of the year

By Adam C. Smith
Florida Governor Rick Scott delivers remarks during a roundtable discussion in Kissimmee, Fla., with central Florida elected official and community leaders about the influx to the Orlando, Fla., area of Puerto Rico residents impacted by Hurricane Maria, on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS)

Heading into the mother of all Florida election years, it’s time to bid 2017 goodbye with our year-end list of winners and losers in Florida politics.

A strong case could be made that Florida voters were the chief losers, given all that we’ve learned about our legislature: State senators hitting on and sleeping with lobbyists (and others) — or turning a blind eye as their colleagues do. State House leaders spending obscene amounts of special interest money on elite restaurants, cigars, posh resorts. Lawmakers drinking behind closed doors.

But that’s so depressingly broad, we’d rather narrow it down a bit. Drum roll please ...

Winner of the year

Richard Corcoran. Critics see him as a bully and sanctimonious hypocrite, an utter insider pretending to be a populist. But the wily Florida House speaker from Pasco County has dominated the agenda in Tallahassee like no one since Jeb Bush. He outmaneuvered both the governor and Florida Senate in last year’s legislative session, and there is little reason to doubt he will do so again in 2018, as he raises his profile in advance of a likely gubernatorial run.

Loser of the year

The Florida Senate. Three senators — Jack Latvala of Pinellas County, Jeff Clemens of Palm Beach County and Frank Artiles of Miami-Dade — knocked out of office for being pigs of one sort or another. What’s supposed to be the more deliberative body looked more like the Animal House branch.

Runner-up winners

Rick Scott. The governor and likely candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018 earned loads of goodwill from his handling of Hurricane Irma. The state’s response had significant problems, but internal campaign polls show that the ubiquitous presence of Scott and his trusty Navy hat significantly boosted his approval ratings as he heads towards a tough challenge of Sen. Bill Nelson.

Bill Nelson. Florida’s senior senator and lone Democrat in statewide office has been both underrated as a candidate and blessed by consistently lousy candidates running against him. Now, he’s likely up against a two-term governor with unlimited resources. The good news for Nelson? Donald Trump will loom large over the election.

Marco Rubio. Sen. Rubio looked like damaged goods after Trump crushed him in Florida’s 2016 presidential primary, but he has done well rehabilitating himself. He started to look more like an actual senator for this state than an aspiring presidential candidate. He was a key player on issues from Venezuela to Cuba to tax reform.

Rachel Perrin Rogers. She had the guts to come forward publicly to challenge the behavior of a powerful senator and faced widespread whispers disparaging her. A special master’s report more or less showed she was right.

Jimmy Patronis. Tapped by Gov. Scott to fill out the unexpired term of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, the little-known state House member from Panama City is now the frontrunner to win the statewide CFO seat in 2018.

Brian Ballard/Susie Wiles. Ca-ching. These two lobbyists were key Florida advisers/helpers to Trump in Florida, and now they are cashing in on their connections with a burgeoning new lobbying practice in the un-drained swamp of Washington.

John Morgan. He’s not running for governor, but neither is the wealthy lawyer disappearing from the spotlight any time soon. Why does it seem like we’re all playing extras in a giant John "For the People" Morgan self-promotion campaign?

Annette Taddeo. Few politicos expected the former losing candidate for Miami-Dade County Commission, Congress (twice) and lieutenant governor, would win the hard-fought special election to replace Frank Artiles in the state Senate. She did, immediately emerging as a leading light for Florida Democrats.

Matt Gaetz. What do you get when you combine a smart, unconstrained loudmouth with the deepest red congressional district in Florida? You get U.S. Rep Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, emerging as one of Florida’s highest-profile congressmen, who is happy to say the most outrageous things standing with Trump without fear of losing votes.

Ron DeSantis. The northeast Florida congressman, tea partier, and likely candidate for governor heads into 2018 with the backing of President Trump and several billionaire conservatives, including Sheldon Adelson and Rebekah Mercer. Watch out, Adam Putnam and Richard Corcoran.

Mar-a-Lago. The presidency has been good to the southern White House in Palm Beach. The private club raised its fees, charged the Secret Service $150,000 so far for golf cart rentals, and refuses to tell the public the names of people visiting the president there.

Florida’s image. The rest of America may mock us, the tabloids may feed off us, but Alabama nominated Roy Moore for U.S. Senate. Florida will always look good in comparison.

Runner-up losers

Florida’s political parties. They are becoming increasingly irrelevant as Florida politicians rely more on their own political committees to spend unlimited campaign donations. Both major parties also have had significant leadership problems.

Stephen Bittel. The Democratic Party’s former chairman, a major fundraiser, earns special mention. Soon after he celebrated significant electoral wins in Miami-Dade’s Senate special election and St. Pete’s mayoral race, his own boorish behavior — including a rubber breast in his office — sent him packing.

Rick Baker. Self-confidence was the least of his problems. The former St. Petersburg mayor saw himself variously as Florida governor, a member of Congress, or a leader in President Jeb Bush’s administration. Turns out he couldn’t even muster a classy concession after losing the mayor’s race to Rick Kriseman.

State Sens. Jack Latvala, Jeff Clemens, Frank Artiles. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, gentleman. … No, not gentlemen. Make that fellas.

Andrew Gillum. The charismatic Tallahassee mayor had looked like the sleeper Democratic candidate for governor in 2018. A major crime problem, and looming corruption investigation into City Hall, ended that. Now the main question is why this guy is still running for governor, when his own side of the street needs cleaning?