TALLAHASSEE — 2010 promises to be the year when the national conservative movement begins to change the Florida Legislature — specifically the Senate, long a speed bump to the House's traditionally conservative ideas.
"The Senate has always been the chamber of baby steps. Now I think the Senate will take long strides," said Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican in line to be president in 2012. "There is a more conservative Senate now, and it will be an even more conservative Senate after November 2010."
It's a reflection of a national conservative revolution that will likely consume the 40-member Senate over the next two years. Already gone are moderates like the late Sen. Jim King; in are conservative champions like Sens. John Thrasher and Joe Negron. A line of conservative R's are behind them, seeking re-election or a first-time Senate seat.
They're being ushered in with the help of Sen. Mike Haridopolos, who is set to become president after November's election. A trickle-down fiscal conservative, he has in recent months taken the unusual step of endorsing Senate candidates who share his Reaganite political philosophy.
The 2010 session beginning today will be set against the backdrop of that looming general election, with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party — here and across the country — out to regain power. In states including South Carolina and California, Republican leaders are beginning to woo members of the Tea Party — far-right conservatives that many view as too extreme. In Florida, Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio is proving to be a formidable U.S. Senate Republican primary opponent for Gov. Charlie Crist.
"This is happening everywhere, but we're really seeing it in the Sun Belt states like Florida, places that were really booming and are now really bust in the recession," said national pollster Matt Towery, former campaign strategist for Republican Newt Gingrich. "People are upset and they don't know what to do, and frankly people are scared. They don't understand (President Barack) Obama's philosophy."
The Florida Senate's rightward shift could have a lasting and dramatic impact, ushering through bills on controversial issues ranging from abortion to offshore oil drilling and school vouchers. It would be a return to the 1970s, when the Senate was the arch-conservative chamber and the House far more progressive — approving, for example, the Equal Rights Amendment for women only to see it die in the Senate.
"The Senate is supposed to be the pause button that refreshes," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a former House member. "If you look at some of the most ideologically conservative legislation to come through here in the past decade, it passed the House and hit a brick wall when it reached the Senate. I hope the Senate continues to exercise the same caution, but listen, I do worry."
When conservative lawmakers tried two years ago to pass a bill requiring pregnant women to view ultrasound images before getting abortions, it failed because a few socially moderate Republican senators sided with Democrats. When House Republicans last spring tried to deny state money to universities conducting embryonic stem cell research, the more deliberative Senate quickly killed the proposal.
The chamber that used to house long-serving moderates is, thanks in large part to term limits, increasingly filled with young senators whose political rise — and political leanings — are closely aligned with the chamber's conservative Republican power brokers.
The Jacksonville seat long held by King, who helped defeat the abortion ultrasound bill in 2008, now belongs to Thrasher, a far more conservative longtime lawmaker who was just elected state party chairman. Come fall, moderates Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Durrell Peaden of Crestview and Alex Villalobos of Miami also will be out. With only 40 members, a few changes in the Senate can mean the difference between legislation's survival or demise.
Still, Gaetz said that doesn't mean the Senate's votes will be right-leaning on all issues.
"Mike Haridopolos is gathering around himself a very strong team of fiscal conservatives. But on social issues, I don't know that that will be the case."
Gaetz pointed out that he isn't a guaranteed yes vote on offshore drilling, for example, because he still has concerns about how it might affect his Panhandle military district. He also has sided with Democratic Sen. Nan Rich on some health care matters.
"We're looking for conservatives, but there has been no social litmus test," he said.
Rich, D-Weston, said the Senate has always been able to build voting coalitions "across the aisle," such as when moderate Republicans sided with Democrats to defeat legislation aimed at keeping Clearwater's Terri Schiavo alive with a feeding tube.
"But when you look to the positions of some of the people who have been endorsed by the Republican leadership for Senate, they do seem to be more likely to skew right on social issues," Rich said.
Haridopolos acknowledges he is working to ensure senators elected in 2010 are "fiscal conservatives" like himself who want to limit spending and grow revenue through tax breaks and offshore oil drilling. For example, he has taken the unusual step of endorsing longtime Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman over veteran House Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa. He said his criteria for choosing which candidate to endorse came down to local fundraising prowess and their stance on issues like a "smart cap" that limits government spending.
"I base those decisions on local support, and on people I like — people I agree with on key issues," Haridopolos said.
"I really want to make this a fiscally conservative Senate. The fact that all of the candidates I endorsed are fiscally conservative is great, isn't it?"
Times/Herald staff writer John Frank contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.