DeSantis tipped balance in Tampa Bay state Senate race. Is it a trend?

Sitting lawmakers Rep. Blaise Ingoglia and Rep. Ralph Massullo have both backed DeSantis agenda items. But Ingoglia sided with the governor on redistricting.
Both sitting lawmakers. Reps. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto and Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, were set to run against each other for state Senate. Then Gov. Ron DeSantis weighed in.
Both sitting lawmakers. Reps. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto and Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, were set to run against each other for state Senate. Then Gov. Ron DeSantis weighed in. [ Tampa Bay Times staff ]
Published March 22, 2022

Gov. Ron DeSantis may be bucking Tallahassee tradition again.

Last week, he waded into a Tampa Bay-area state Senate race that promised to be a tough primary between two sitting lawmakers. On March 14, DeSantis in a tweet endorsed Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, for the newly drawn Senate District 11.

Two days later, he announced Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, Ingoglia’s competitor, would be stepping out of the Senate race to run for reelection to the House. DeSantis’ endorsement of Massullo in the House race came before Massullo had announced he was switching races.

While DeSantis had endorsed Republican incumbents before, this move marked a tipping of the scales in an open race that was shaping up to be highly contested. Ingoglia is one of the most outspoken members of a conservative House, while Massullo, a dermatologist and one of the wealthiest members of the Florida Legislature, has the ability to self-fund.

It’s unclear if DeSantis intends to make more primary endorsements. But if he does, it would disrupt the typical process by which Republican legislative leadership selects their preferred candidates and directs campaign cash their way.

Both Ingoglia and Massullo have proudly backed DeSantis initiatives, but Ingoglia is a conservative firebrand and former chairperson of the Republican Party of Florida, while some in DeSantis’ circle view Massullo as more moderate.

But perhaps the most important contrast between the two came in the Legislature’s recent vote over the congressional redistricting maps, which DeSantis has vowed to veto. Massullo voted for the maps, siding with the Republican legislative leadership. Ingoglia was among the handful of Republicans who voted against them.

“The governor’s endorsement carries a big punch,” said Christian Ziegler, the vice-chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “I think the governor has a right to do whatever the governor wants to do.”

Dave Abrams, a spokesperson for DeSantis’ reelection campaign, did not respond to questions about why the governor intervened in this race and whether the fight over the congressional maps played a role. In a statement, he said that the governor “is pleased to support two strong conservatives in their election to the Florida Legislature.”

Neither Ingoglia nor his political spokesperson returned calls, texts and emails requesting comment.

Campaign finance records suggest that before DeSantis got involved, Massullo was all-in on his race for Senate. On the same day he filed paperwork to run for Senate, he loaned his campaign $1.5 million, a far higher amount than he ever gave to his previous House campaigns. In contrast, in his first race in 2016, Massullo loaned himself $100,000.

The Senate district, which will become Senate District 11 after the once-a-decade reapportionment process, will cover Citrus, Hernando and Sumter County along with a small part of north Pasco.

Massullo did not return calls to discuss why he switched races, and instead sent a statement.

“Our focus this election should be on expanding our conservative majorities — not tearing each other apart as Republicans,” Massullo’s statement read. “That is why I’ve decided to forgo my campaign for the State Senate and seek reelection to the Florida House.”

When asked over text if his vote on the congressional redistricting maps led to his opponent getting the endorsement, Massullo said he would not “speculate on the Governor’s mindset.”

Multiple observers have said DeSantis has more in common with Ingoglia, who owns a production company called “Government Gone Wild” that has made videos with provocative titles like “The Illegal Immigration Video Democrats DON’T Want You To See.”

Neither Senate President Wilton Simpson nor incoming President Kathleen Passidomo had officially endorsed either candidate in the Ingoglia-Massullo primary, but they have weighed in on other races for the 2022 cycle.

Ziegler said he thinks DeSantis is “going to weigh in on a lot of these races.”

Six candidates have already filed to run for the House seat Massullo had been expected to vacate. Four of the candidates filed after Massullo announced his Senate run. After seeing the governor’s tweet, some of the candidates scrambled to check in with Massullo.

Republican Dale Marie Merrill said she and Massullo signed each other’s candidacy forms to help get both their names on the ballot. But after hearing Massullo would run again, Merrill said Tuesday she plans to withdraw from the race.

“It isn’t right of me to be taking money for the campaign when I know that Ralph really has the best chance of winning,” she said.

Nancy Sue Pierson, the only Democrat in the race, said having the incumbent back in doesn’t change her campaign.

“I wish all the Republicans the best,” she said. “I believe they were thrown quite a curveball.”

Alex Patton, a Gainesville GOP pollster who’s criticized the governor, said DeSantis’ entrance into this race is unusual but that he expects to see this breaking of the norms happening more often in this political environment.

“Right now, (DeSantis) has such large margins and such high approval ratings that he’s flexing a little bit, and he can,” he said.