TALLAHASSEE — A flurry of candidates qualified for dozens of state races before Friday's noon deadline, creating a few surprises and prompting conspiracy theories among some political observers.
The tea party is at the center of the controversy, as 19 of its candidates submitted election paperwork to run in the Legislature and one Cabinet-level race.
Republicans immediately cried foul, questioning the tea partiers' credentials and motives, suggesting their goal was to draw votes from traditional Republicans.
"The recent flurry of last-minute filings by so-called 'tea party candidates' looks awfully suspicious," GOP Chairman John Thrasher said in a news release.
The last day of qualifying had moments of suspense in the governor's race. A staffer for Lawton "Bud" Chiles III, an independent, filed his papers eight minutes before the deadline. Many Democrats fear Chiles, whose father was a former two-term governor, will draw votes away from the presumptive Democratic nominee Alex Sink.
Sink also received an unexpected primary challenger: former Socialist party presidential candidate Brian Moore of Spring Hill.
Rick Scott, the political rookie who is leading the polls in the Republican primary, also filed the required financial disclosure 15 minutes before noon. Scott submitted most of his other paperwork on Thursday.
"We wanted to be very certain we were accurate and careful," said Susie Wiles, Scott's campaign manager.
The Division of Elections office was packed with candidates and politicos, many of whom wanted to know how much the former health care executive was worth. Scott, a wealthy Naples businessman listed his net worth as $218.6 million. Through Friday, he has poured $16 million of his own wealth into campaign advertising.
As his personal wealth was being made public, Scott attended a GOP breakfast in Tampa where he faced loyal party activists who asked tough questions about his role as CEO of a hospital chain that paid a record $1.7 billion fraud fine for overbilling federal health services.
A woman accused Scott of being an "un-indicted co-conspirator," which prompted a testy exchange caught on audio tape.
Scott gave a heated response, calling attacks on him "not consistent," and repeating a now familiar response, that he was never even questioned in the investigation. By the end of the confrontation, Scott raised his voice and sounded clearly angry, and he cut off a follow-up question.
Another surprise on qualifying day was a candidate who did not make the ballot: Rep. Pat Patterson, R-DeLand, who said as late as Thursday he would run for chief financial officer. The move cleared the GOP field for Senate President Jeff Atwater, who holds a large financial advantage over his opponents.
But it was the tea partiers who grabbed most of the attention, particularly for their mysterious backgrounds.
The only statewide tea party candidate is Ira Chester, a 75-year-old late entryin the race for commissioner of agriculture. The registered Democrat paid the $7,700 qualifying fee, though he has only $1,807 in his checking account and lives on a fixed income.
And consider Victoria Torres, a 51-year-old Orlando resident who qualified to run in District 51, a seat in northern Pinellas County currently held by Democrat Janet Long. Reached by phone Friday, Torres refused comment, referring all questions to tea party Chairman Fred O'Neal.
"It's not that we are out to help Democrats," O'Neal said. "We are out to hurt Republicans who say they are for fiscal responsibility and who are not."
The maneuvering is reminiscent of five Green Party candidates who quietly filed in 2008 to run in contested races. The move worried Democrats at the time, though most of the candidates didn't play a factor in the outcome of the races.
This year, some of the tea party candidates appear genuine. James "Heinie" Heinzelman, 71, qualified for an Orlando-area House seat currently held by Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka.
"I just realized the Republican party wasn't going to do anything for me," he said. "The beauty of it is we don't have to go to a primary."
Heinzelman dismissed the notion that he would only siphon conservative votes from the Republican in the race.
"I'm in it to win, not to be a spoiler," he said, adding that if it looks like he might throw the race to the Democrat as Election Day draws closer, he might consider dropping out.
There are 143 legislative seats up for election this year, including all 120 House seats.
Overall, Republicans and Democrats will each compete in roughly 30 House races. The parties will likely do battle over a smaller number of contested open seats, while trying to protect vulnerable challengers in swing districts.
A significant portion of candidates might be characterized as "reruns,'' some of whom ran for higher office and lost or simply want back in after being forced out by term limits.
There are at least a dozen with prior legislative experience, including former Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican running for a Pinellas Senate seat. Former Senate President Gwen Margolis is also looking to return to the Senate to fill a Miami Beach seat.
Several House members are looking to return to the Legislature, including Miami Republican Rene Garcia, Orlando-area Republican David Simmons, and Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala.
Former Rep. Gus Barreiro, R-Miami, is also looking to come back to his old seat. Barreiro left the House for a job at the Department of Juvenile Justice, where he was fired over an accusation he looked at pornography on a state laptop.
The second-to-last candidate to file was Ann Grady, who is running to replace her husband, retiring Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples. She brought up the idea to her husband last night and made the final decision to run at 10 a.m. Friday — then realized she had to be in Tallahassee to file her paperwork.
Some friends were flying to Vermont and the Gradys jumped on their plane to make it to the capital before noon.
"It just all lined up that I'm the right person," she said, describing the only other candidate in the race as a Republican who supports President Obama and higher taxes, she said. "I just couldn't watch it, no one was running against her."
Ann Grady talked briefly with Bernadine Bush, who also qualified to run to replace her husband. The Miami seat has long been in family hands: Rep. James Bush, a Democrat, held the post from 1992-2000, before his cousin won the seat. Bush was re-elected in 2008, but is running for Congress this year.
"I think we need a certain kind of consistency as far as leadership is concerned, and I'm the person to provide that," she said.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.