Why Richard Corcoran failed in his bid for Florida governor

Corcoran’s decision to drop out marks a setback for one of the most ambitious legislative leaders in a decade, but supporters say he will be back.
What's ahead for Corcoran? [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
What's ahead for Corcoran? [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published May 9, 2018|Updated May 9, 2018

There is a reason no speaker of the Florida House of Representatives in modern times has ever been elected governor and Richard Corcoran thought he could prove the exception.

But his detailed study of the flaws of the institution and his carefully-scripted move to the right on issues like immigration, taxes and the judiciary were not enough to impress a Republican base conditioned by Fox News and social media.

"I've passionately said for the last year that I was going to run for governor or go home and I'm proud to say that decision is clearly that we're going home,'' said Corcoran at a Wednesday news conference to endorse Republican rival Adam Putnam.

Noting that Florida, with its dozen media markets, is an expensive campaign state, the Land O'Lakes lawmaker concluded: "I don't think we have the resources to move forward."

Corcoran's Watchdog PAC political committee had raised $6.86 million and spent $4.6 million through the end of the March, with $3.7 million in spending in the first three months of this year. By contrast, Putnam has been fundraising for nearly eight years — sitting on $20 million by securing deep-pocketed and aggressive backers like U.S. Sugar, known for conducting opposition research against opponents,

Corcoran's departure sets up a two-man race between Putnam and U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Palm Coast for the Republican primary. It will be a nationally-watched test case for whether the old-style retail politics embraced by Putnam can stand up to the modern television-fed national media campaign conducted by DeSantis.

DeSantis responded to Corcoran's news swiftly, blasting the union of the two Tallahassee denizens as an "insider deal."

Putnam responded, "Richard and I know Florida. We have been through every corner of this state." He refused to acknowledge whether the endorsement would win Corcoran anything more than a visit to a few more barbeques on the campaign trail.

Corcoran had his own thoughts about DeSantis' critique: "Was that sent from a studio in New York?"

Although Putnam, the state's agriculture commissioner, has the fundraising lead, DeSantis has been edging him in the polls. His strategy has been to make up for his smaller war chest with scores of free media time as a guest on Fox News shows, a channel watched by many likely Republican voters.

Corcoran's decision to drop out marks a setback for one of the most ambitious legislative leaders in a decade.

Corcoran, 53, was elected to the Florida House in 2010 and was speaker from 2016 to 2018. As speaker, Corcoran's zeal for policy, cunning Legislative tactics and ability to cultivate loyalty in his party made him a powerhouse, but his aggressive pursuit of stronger ethics rules, budget transparency and controversial education reform and his conservative hard line on health care won both friends and enemies.

Rep. Janet Cruz, the Democratic House minority leader from Tampa, said that Corcoran's refusal to expand Medicaid in 2015 as well as his school choice crusade weakened his leadership.

"Refusal to provide an avenue for working families to have health care coverage is egregious to me, and I think that funneling money away from public schools … was big priority for Richard," she said.

But, Cruz added, they had a strong working relationship and she would often go into Corcoran's office and shout about a policy she found unacceptable, and he would listen.

"We disagreed and argued with each other,'' she said. "He brought me into the process. He didn't have to. I think that we would be a better state and a better country if both sides worked more the way Richard Corcoran and Janet Cruz did."

Corcoran decided he would not announce his campaign for governor until after the Legislature session ended in March, and that proved costly.
DeSantis had announced his candidacy in January, declaring himself the "outsider," and winning the support of President Trump. As he raised money from the right, he quickly occupied the lane Corcoran had hoped to own.

After session, Corcoran again delayed a decision as House and Senate leaders considered convening a special session on gaming. As the clock ticked, rumors surfaced that he might consider switching to run for attorney general.

"The uncertainty gave the donor class hesitation,'' said Nick Iarossi, a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist and fundraiser. "He was kind of left without a chair when the music stopped."

Confronted with no winning strategy and not enough cash, Corcoran officially called it quits Wednesday after eight years in office. Instead of announcing a campaign, he touted his legacy of education and ethics reforms.

"There is never going to be a leader in the history of the world that is going to get all he wanted,'' he told reporters. "But what we did is come together with a compromise that absolutely changed the way we do business in the state."

It has never been easy for a former presiding office to run a statewide campaign and few have succeeded. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who became House speaker on the strength of a strategy Corcoran helped craft as his chief of staff, is the most successful exception. Former Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and former Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, both former Senate presidents, successfully won a Cabinet post but many others have failed.

House speakers and Senate presidents have to take difficult votes and address crises over which they have had no control.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland came just 16 days after Corcoran launched an expensive, controversial television ad, which brought accusations of race-baiting. It featured a voice-over from Corcoran warning against the dangers of "sanctuary cities," while showing a white teenage girl getting shot point-blank by a hooded "illegal immigrant" in the suburbs.

The gamble failed to boost Corcoran's opinion polls, and the Parkland shooting quickly consumed the attention of the state and nation.

On Wednesday, Corcoran acknowledged that had he run for attorney general, as many had urged him to do, he would have "hands-down been the frontrunner." But he and others close to him said that he never really considered any race other than governor.

"When he was speaker of the House … he was able to raise a lot from people in interest groups and lobbyists who want to have access to decision-makers," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. "But there's no more sessions, so he has very little power and influence anymore so going forward between now and Election Day he was going to have hard time raising money."

Some, like Rick Scott, can overcome obscurity by flooding political committees with cash and saturating the airwaves with ads. By investing more than $100 million of his own money for both his winning campaigns for governor, Scott transformed himself from an unknown, disgraced health care executive to the governor of the nation's third-largest state.

Corcoran, who considers himself a crusader and idea guy, had hoped to use his leadership of the House into a launchpad to persuade voters to choose him to lead the state. He began by proposing sweeping new House rules based on a white paper he had drafted in 2012 with the 31 other freshmen legislators elected to office in 2010.

He carefully cultivated the relationship with his freshman class, spending hours over wine and cigars discussing ways to dismantle the lobbyist-influenced hierarchy of the Legislative leadership chain by delegating and sharing power with members.

Their subsequent "Blueprint" for leadership described how they would give "all legislators equal footing," empower committee chairmen to set the agenda and task legislators with the responsibility of pushing their initiatives. New budget rules prohibited the last-minute insertion of projects into the final state budget, and required lobbyists to disclose which legislation they were lobbying.

The goal, Corcoran told House members in November 2016, was to "create a firewall between those that seek to influence the law and those that make the laws." He promised "no more business deals with lobbyists. No more lobbyists texting during committees and during session. No more flying on private planes" and "no more lobbying after our terms of service is done — not for two, not for four but for six years."

But transforming Corcoran's high-minded ideas into reality proved the bigger challenge and many of his proposals were whittled away in the face of resistance.

While Corcoran developed many of his own proposals, he also latched onto the issues promoted by the network of billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, which he hoped would provide a campaign edge in a crowded Republican primary.

He adopted AFP's anti "corporate welfare" language, and embraced their issues — from opposing Obamacare and pursuing Medicaid reform to expanding charter schools.

Near the end of 2018 session, Americans for Prosperity put out mailers with Corcoran's picture on them, thanking the Florida Legislature for its massive education package, HB 7055, which became law.

But even the Koch support didn't materialize into any major campaign advantage, as those groups have also heralded the policies of DeSantis, and don't always endorse one candidate in major races.

Now that his political career is winding to an end — at least for now — a look back at Corcoran's legacy as speaker portrays a passionate leader who took credit for helping to "transform" state government with an aggressive agenda aimed at trying to keep legislators from the corrupting influences of the system.

Corcoran also proved he enjoyed a good fight. During his first session as speaker, he took on Gov. Rick Scott, using his first few months as speaker accusing the governor of being a crony capitalist in charge of an "absolute cesspool" known as Enterprise Florida, the state's corporate recruitment agency.

But, having started the conversation about whether "corporate welfare" money is a good investment, he then withdrew the knife and used his political capital to mend fences by bringing the governor a $160 million economic development package.

His riled the education establishment with his signature education reform known as HB 7069, declaring it "the most transformative and transparent in the Legislature's history."

And in his second session as speaker, Corcoran took on the National Rifle Association, working with the governor and Senate to push through the first gun control measures in decades in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who was Corcoran's hand-selected choice to be speaker in 2021, said Corcoran's "bold and over-the-top" leadership style made him effective and visionary.

"It's hard to hear Richard Corcoran talk about a policy where he doesn't get animated and passionate," Sprowls said.

On Wednesday, Corcoran pronounced that the work of his appointments to the Constitution Revision Commission "championed transformative ethics reform" with the ballot measure that imposes a six-year lobbying ban on elected officials in Florida.

"Closing that revolving door between special interests and elective office,'' he said, will be "game-changing legislation" and a "foothold to getting rid of government corruption."

What now?

"I don't think Richard Corcoran is going away,'' said Iarossi, the Tallahassee lobbyist. "He loves the political process. The policy debates are an opiate for him. He has money and the ability to influence elections. He will continue to play a significant role this election cycle and in the future.

The question is, what that is going to look like in the future?"
Sprowls agreed, saying Corcoran will continue to influence things no matter his position.

"Whether that's as a private citizen or someday he runs for office, this is not a guy who's going to go sit on a porch somewhere."