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Tough primary races points to a divided Florida GOP

LAKELAND — Florida Republican leaders worked hard to thwart any costly and potentially divisive primaries in this busy election cycle.

They could not have failed more and looked less disciplined if they were Democrats.

State Sen. Paula Dockery became the latest to thumb her nose at the party establishment, formally announcing her campaign for governor Tuesday night, five months after a battalion of party leaders gathered alongside Attorney General Bill McCollum in Orlando to anoint him as their gubernatorial standard-bearer.

"Florida needs a common sense conservative leader it can count on to do the right thing," Dockery, 48, told more than 150 people gathered in the drizzle at a Lakeland town square.

Dockery cast herself as the reformer to pull the GOP back to its core principles and away from special interests. She cited several top Republican fundraisers facing criminal investigations, indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom, and dubious spending by Republican leaders.

"People are tired of it. They're beyond cynical and moving toward angry,'' she said. "They want a choice in the Republican primary."

With the economy and the multitude of open statewide races making money raising harder than ever, state GOP leaders see an array of potentially tough primaries that could drain campaign accounts by the general election.

"My original hope was that we would be able to focus on the Democrats and the general election and conserve as much of our financial resources as possible, but that doesn't always happen the way you would like,'' said state Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer, who provoked a grass roots firestorm when he tried to invoke an obscure party rule allowing the state party to unite behind Gov. Charlie Crist for the U.S. Senate.

Look at almost every statewide race and you'll see contests for the Republican nomination.

• U.S. Senate: Former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio is making life increasingly difficult for Crist, who had expected a cakewalk.

• Attorney general: Normally a sitting lieutenant governor would be the overwhelming favorite, but Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp has drawn a challenge from former state Rep. Holly Benson. Tampa prosecutor Pam Bondi probably will jump in soon.

• Agriculture commissioner: U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, was going to walk into this seat, conventional wisdom had it. But state Sen. Carey Baker had other ideas and seems to keep racking up significant endorsements, from the likes of the Association of Professional Firefighters and Fraternal Order of Police.

• Governor: Dockery may be unknown to most of the state, but with a personal fortune at her disposal and a message that paints McCollum as a career politician, she has potential to be a serious threat.

Unlike Rubio challenging Crist from the right, Dockery is casting herself as a different kind of politician who can shake up the status quo. She earned plenty of attention in the last legislative session for single-handedly derailing a SunRail project she cast as a boondoggle and giveaway to the CSX rail corporation.

"When did it become a conservative value to hand over gobs of money — hundreds of millions of dollars — to for-profit companies in backroom deals," Dockery said to cheers Tuesday.

Party bosses may bemoan primaries, but others see them as healthy debates that energize the electorate. McCollum said he's heard the argument that a tough primary will only help him. He doesn't buy it.

"I don't know any candidate who would prefer to have a primary,'' acknowledged McCollum, who in 2000 saw party leaders push aside Tom Gallagher to clear the U.S. Senate field for McCollum and in 2004 experienced a nasty primary in which Mel Martinez won the nomination.

The only statewide race shaping up as drama-free for the GOP is chief financial officer, where Senate President Jeff Atwater has no major primary challenger and Democrats don't even have a candidate.

Florida Democratic leaders worked hard to avoid primaries too, and largely succeeded. The only major Democratic primary at this point appears to be the race for attorney general between state Sens. Dave Aronberg and Dan Gelber.

Republican consultant Jamie Miller said primaries can be healthy for parties, but he worries about activists who seem determined to rid the party of any moderates.

"I don't want our party to become the party of martyrdom,'' said Miller, noting a recent special congressional election in upstate New York, where Democrats won the Republican-leaning seat after conservative activists pushed out the moderate Republican.

At this point though, it's clearly beyond any Republican Party leader's ability to control.

"There are little rivers flowing through the Republican Party right now, different views on what direction it should go,'' Greer said. "People are frustrated and angry. In a lot of cases there's a feeling that Washington is telling us what to do."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Tough primary races points to a divided Florida GOP 11/10/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 11, 2009 7:18am]
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