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Senate GOP leaders get their way in state primaries

TALLAHASSEE — Powered by $3 million in corporate campaign money, state Senate Republicans raced to a clean sweep on Tuesday in Tampa Bay and beyond.

The results were a decisive victory for Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican who will become Senate president in November, and for the many Tallahassee interests that helped bankroll him and his slate of Senate candidates.

The results likely will keep the makeup of the Legislature largely the same.

"Every primary in which I had an interest turned out exactly as I had hoped." Gaetz said. "I wouldn't have traded our candidate for anybody else."

Alluding to his arsenal of campaign money, which paid for hard-hitting attack ads against his GOP opponents, Gaetz said: "When you go into battle, it's better to have more ammunition and a better battle plan than the other side."

In the two most hard-fought Senate races, losing candidates were aligned with Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who needed both wins to strengthen a claim to a future Senate presidency.

Like his predecessors, Gaetz played favorites in open Senate seats, backing them with large soft-money donations from utilities, doctors, health care firms and agribusiness interests.

The primary sweep is likely to embolden Senate leaders to continue a controversial practice of taking sides in contested primaries where no incumbent is running, turning primaries into high-stakes poker games with real-life results.

If any candidate on Gaetz's slate had lost, he would have looked weaker, and it would have sowed seeds of discontent in a 40-member body that often has the final word in the passage or defeat of key legislation.

As Gaetz-backed candidates got massive injections of money and ground support, their opponents were forced to run insurgent campaigns in which they railed against the special interests in Tallahassee.

In race after race, the anointed candidates prevailed:

• Former Senate President Tom Lee of Brandon beat Rep. Rachel Burgin of Riverview.

• Ex-Rep. Aaron Bean, like Lee pursuing a comeback, decisively beat Rep. Mike Weinstein in a Jacksonville-based seat.

• Rep. John Legg of Port Richey crushed two GOP rivals in a seat straddling the Pasco-Hillsborough line.

In a fourth Republican family feud, Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, did not openly have the support of Gaetz and his fellow leaders, but he handily defeated Rep. Jim Frishe to clinch an open seat in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Brandes, like other Senate winners, had a substantial fundraising advantage.

In the cheering crowd at Brandes' victory party was Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a Gaetz ally and Latvala's primary rival for the 2016 Senate presidency.

Negron said Brandes invited him to attend.

Brandes may be an incoming freshman senator, but his win elevates him to a potential kingmaker in a future Senate leadership fight.

"Republicans throughout the state were looking for strong, conservative leaders, and they found several of them," Negron said. "I'm very proud to support Jeff Brandes."

Gaetz praised Lee for an effective and hard-working race, but added that Burgin hurt her own chances with a negative campaign that targeted Lee's personal life.

"Gutter politics. Republicans don't like that," Gaetz said. "Tom Lee earned his victory and Rachel Burgin beat herself."

Primary races for the state House were more low-key.

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the incoming speaker, noted that not one House Republican was beaten by a challenger, even though many ran in new, unfamiliar areas due to redistricting.

"We feel like our slate of candidates is pretty good," he said.

It was a smoothly-run election marked by a weak turnout: One in every five eligible voters cast a ballot.

Turnout was especially sluggish in the state's three largest counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Senate GOP leaders get their way in state primaries 08/14/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 11:55am]
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