TALLAHASSEE — The drama in Florida's Capitol intensified Wednesday as Sen. Joe Negron of Stuart declared victory in his marathon battle with Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater to become Senate president next year.
Latvala scoffed at the claim and said the fight is far from settled.
Negron released the names of 14 of 26 Republican senators, including himself, to form a majority that would secure the powerful two-year post, and Senate President Andy Gardiner scheduled a caucus vote in early December to seal Negron's long climb to power.
A relentless Latvala refused to concede and said the political dynamics will change after a special session in October to redraw district boundaries in a Senate where Republicans control 26 of 40 seats.
The tradition-bound Senate faces a period of extreme uncertainty and political tension for the next three months.
Everyday Floridians pay no attention to internal power struggles, but the stakes matter because the combatants would have different priorities.
The Senate president appoints all committee chairmen, directs a legislative agenda and has power to push or kill legislation, from tax cuts to Medicaid expansion to the rights of immigrants.
Negron, 53, a lawyer, is a policy wonk with a studious demeanor and a libertarian streak. He has sponsored legislation to restrict use of drones, prohibit random drug tests of public employees and restore rivers and lagoons along the Treasure Coast.
Latvala, 63, a printer and political strategist, has centrist views, an aggressive style and a record of favoring unions and consumers. He was an early sponsor of Florida Forever, a program to secure open lands, and is an outspoken critic of Duke Energy.
After three years of trench warfare in a Senate divided into two factions, Negron unequivocally declared victory. "A majority of senators have made clear their choice for the next Senate president. We'll see the Senate uniting over the next several weeks," Negron said.
The Capitol is a chaotic place, with three sessions this year ending in disarray, the latest just last Friday.
Latvala said the upcoming redrawing of Senate districts will prolong the suspense over which faction will rule the Senate after the 2016 elections. He said it's too soon for a caucus vote.
"We've got real dysfunction and we can't get our job done," Latvala said. "Now is the worst possible time to add another dimension to this."
Depending on how the Senate districts change, all 40 senators could stand for re-election next year, opening up regional battlegrounds all over the state.
"We don't even have the maps yet," said Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, a Latvala loyalist. He called Negron's action "a political gamble. It's either a show of strength or a show of desperation."
The Senate has a long history of coalescing around future leaders years in advance, usually in an odd-numbered year before an election. The Negron-Latvala race has been unusually close for a very long time.
For the first time, Negron released his list of all 13 senators pledged to him. They are Thad Altman, Aaron Bean, Lizbeth Benacquisto, Rob Bradley, Jeff Brandes, Anitere Flores, Don Gaetz, Bill Galvano, Dorothy Hukill, Travis Hutson, Garrett Richter, Wilton Simpson and Kelli Stargel.
Altman, from the Space Coast city of Rockledge, broke a tie this past spring when he switched his allegiance from Latvala to Negron.
"The math speaks for itself," said Flores, a Miamian and the only South Florida senator who backs Negron.
Brandes is the only Tampa Bay Republican senator who does not support Latvala.
Latvala noted that Altman, Gaetz and Richter all face term limits in 2016 and cannot run again, which he said adds more suspense. For that reason, he said the caucus vote should be delayed until after the 2016 election.
Two Latvala supporters, Sens. Charlie Dean of Inverness and Nancy Detert of Venice, are not likely to run next year, and a third Latvala ally, Sen. Greg Evers of Baker, also may not seek re-election.
Negron and Latvala have been barmstorming the state, recruiting Senate candidates and raising money to secure additional pledges.
Galvano, a Bradenton lawyer, has nailed down the votes to be Senate president in 2018 and will be followed by Simpson, a Pasco County egg farmer.
The state House will crown Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, as its next speaker on Sept. 16, and in 2018, he will be succeeded by Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes. But House Republicans have their own unsettled family feud, with Rep. Eric Eisnaugle of Orlando working to fend off a challenge from Rep. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill, chairman of the state Republican Party, for control in 2020.
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Mary Ellen Klas and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.