TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Richard Corcoran says he won't announce whether he'll run for governor until seven months from now, after the 2018 legislative session.
But the Pasco County Republican is laying the groundwork for a candidacy in a field where Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has a big head start and where Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has joined the fray.
He may run and he may not, but Corcoran, 52, who began his rise through Republican ranks as a campaign strategist, has the instincts of an operative and the travel schedule of a full-time candidate. Whether dining with donors at Tampa's Capital Grille or borrowing lobbyist friend Bill Rubin's Fort Lauderdale conference room to huddle with consultants, Corcoran doesn't publicize what he's doing.
But he does leave clues. Here are four signs of a budding candidacy:
• Meeting governors. Two weeks ago, Corcoran attended a Republican Governors Association meeting in Nashville where prospective 2018 candidates rubbed elbows with GOP governors and deep-pocket donors from around the country. Putnam also was there. Corcoran's new BFF from the closing days of the legislative session, Gov. Rick Scott, helped with introductions. Corcoran called it a "fact-finding" tour. He had a 45-minute meeting with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the association's chairman.
• Focus groups. Corcoran clearly wants to know a lot more of what likely Republican primary voters want in their next governor, and he has held private focus group meetings in Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa. The Tampa session was held at Herron Associates, a research firm on West Shore Boulevard. Corcoran declined to discuss what he has learned from focus-group testing.
• Fundraising. Corcoran's Watchdog PAC raised $3 million in 21/2 months. Leading six-figure donors include Miami car dealer and philanthropist Norman Braman; a PAC controlled by Rep. José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who will succeed Corcoran as speaker; and trial lawyers such as the firm of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, who usually are aligned with Democrats.
• Grass roots events. Corcoran travels regularly and far from his Pasco district to boost his visibility and build a base. Three recent examples are a Republican barbecue in Monticello, a speech to the South-West Republican Club in the heavily Democratic Pembroke Pines and a Fort Lauderdale convention of charter school teachers hosted by Charter Schools USA, a $25,000 Corcoran donor that supported his signature legislation in 2017 to expand charters. The controversial law faces court challenges from several school districts.
"I've traveled around the state for six years, meeting people and getting their input on how to make Florida better. I just continue to do it," said Corcoran, who was elected to the House in 2010. Running for governor "is something we haven't ruled out. I wouldn't want there to be a default candidate. We'll be prepared."
Corcoran attended a June conference with prominent GOP donors hosted by Charles and David Koch, backers of Americans for Prosperity, at an exclusive resort in Colorado. A few weeks ago, he joined three Democratic House members at a weekend event in Rep. Kim Daniels' predominantly African-American Jacksonville district to celebrate the passage of a bill that allows students to express religious views in public schools.
A Corcoran campaign would be an immediate lightning rod for criticism. As speaker, he has antagonized school districts, local tourism leaders, cities and counties, all of which he believes would be assets as an anti-establishment candidate. But he also has six children, ranging in age from 5 to 16 years, and says the effect of a campaign on his family will be a "big factor" in his decision.
Republican U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, also a Koch brothers favorite, says he too may run for governor.
State Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who obviously supports his father's candidacy, is not ruling out a bid from Corcoran.
"He has said he's either going to run for governor or he'll run for nothing," Latvala said. "It certainly wouldn't surprise me."
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.