Get ready for the Jack attack.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, the gruff, longtime force in Tampa Bay and Tallahassee politics, on Friday filed campaign papers to run for governor in 2018 setting the stage for a Tampa Bay-centric battle for the future of Florida's GOP.
Latvala, 65, is the sort of pragmatic, give-and-take Republican legislator who has fallen out of favor with much of the base lately, but allies insist he is underestimated in a potentially crowded Republican field dominated by career politicians.
"The race promises to be extremely competitive, with Jack having a clear path as the pragmatic conservative, unafraid of reaching across the aisle, and with a lifelong record of delivering real results for our state and our community," said former U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores. "Pinellas should be excited about the prospects of a Gov. Latvala."
Latvala sought to maintain a modicum of suspense before his scheduled announcement tour Wednesday that includes speeches in Clearwater, Hialeah, and Panama City. But because the law forbids any campaign spending without a campaign account already set up, he went ahead and opened an account Friday.
"It means we want to be legal as we prepare for our three-city announcement tour next week," Latvala said, not quite confirming what everybody already assumed: He is running for governor.
He also tweeted out a smiling photo of a friend's son in a Tampa Bay Rays uniform holding Latvala's campaign paperwork. "My papers were filed by 5-year-old Rays fan Cooper Bishop!"
Latvala is running to succeed Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is term-limited in 2018 and expected to run for U.S. Senate against Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. The burly and famously cantankerous Clearwater Republican is a clear underdog, and not just because he is widely viewed as a moderate.
Latvala's political committee had a healthy $3.82 million available to spend as of July 31. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who formally announced his long-expected candidacy in May, had $12.3 million on hand, while two other candidates exploring runs, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes, and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of northeast Florida, had about $2.8 million and $1.2 million respectively.
The field of Republican contenders is packed with Tampa Bay connections.
Latvala, is a longtime political consultant who has been a Republican kingmaker for decades; Corcoran, 52, is a Pasco resident and longtime Tallahassee operative; Putnam, 43, has been in elective office in Washington or Tallahassee for more than half his life and resides in Polk County, part of the Tampa Bay media market. DeSantis, 38, lives in Palm Coast near Jacksonville, but grew up in Dundedin before heading to Yale and the U.S. Navy.
The Republican primary could get very nasty very quickly. Latvala has never been one to back down from a fight. He and Corcoran intensely dislike each other and Latvala has already taken swipes at Putnam on Twitter.
A native of Oxford, Miss., Latvala began his political career as a young Republican Party operative in the mid-1970s at a time when the GOP was virtually powerless. He traveled across the state, recruiting GOP candidates to run for the Legislature.
While serving two separate eight-year stretches in the Senate, he also became prosperous running a direct mail business and shaping political messages for other candidates — county commissioners, sheriffs and state legislators. He makes $142,508 as the CEO of GCI Printing Services out of Largo, according to his 2016 financial disclosure, which lists his net worth at $7.4 million.
Latvala hopes his private sector experience sets him apart.
"As a small business owner and public servant, I have a track record of getting things done and solving problems," Latvala said in a statement earlier this week about his planned announcement Wednesday. "One thing you can always expect from me too is when I give you my word, I will keep it."
Latvala's candidacy will be a supreme test of his irascible nature. "Grumpy" is one of the more charitable words used to describe his volatile temperament. Even though retail politicking no longer has the cachet it once did, running for statewide office requires an endless amount of schmoozing at party dinners, fish fries and forums.
As the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations committee, Latvala is widely viewed as one of the most effective legislators and often is at the center of the senate's most thorny and complex policy debates.
He has never run statewide or faced serious challengers in his own races, but he has loads of experience on the inside of numerous tough campaigns across the state.
Latvala, previously married to former Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, last summer married Tallahassee real estate agent Connie Prince. Latvala has two children, including state Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this story. Contact Adam C. Smith at [email protected] Follow @adamsmithtimes.