DeSantis makes Florida Senate power play with endorsement in Tampa race, others

For the Tampa seat, the governor is backing a different candidate than Senate Republican leadership.
Ron DeSantis speaks before he signs the state budget at The Villages, Florida, on June 2, 2022.
Ron DeSantis speaks before he signs the state budget at The Villages, Florida, on June 2, 2022. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published June 21, 2022

With a spate of tweet endorsements right before the end of the candidate qualifying period, Gov. Ron DeSantis exerted his influence last week on a handful of state Senate races, including backing one candidate over another that’s been supported by Senate Republican leadership.

The power play is being viewed by many as an effort by DeSantis to form a faction of senators more loyal to the governor than Senate Republican leadership, creating a glide path for getting his agenda through a chamber where in the past he’s met some resistance.

In Tampa, he backed Jay Collins, a Green Beret veteran, for state Senate District 14, despite the fact that Collins had previously been running for Congress. Senate Republican leadership had already spent tens of thousands supporting the candidate they endorsed, former Rep. Shawn Harrison, campaign finance records show.

Related: Republican Jay Collins moves to Florida Senate race with DeSantis endorsement

The governor also announced that Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a prominent Republican from Estero, would not, in fact, be running for reelection. DeSantis instead declared Lee County GOP chairperson Jonathan Martin as the best-suited replacement. After the tweet, Senate leadership, which includes outgoing President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and incoming president Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, joined the governor in endorsing Martin.

DeSantis publicly clashed with Simpson over an Everglades bill last session, and called lawmakers back to Tallahassee after he and the Legislature were at odds over redistricting.

The Senate, which has power to approve some executive appointments, has historically been viewed as having a more independent streak than the top-down hierarchy of the House.

“This governor has clearly made it known that this is an autocracy and he’s going to do what he wants to do, the way he wants to do it,” said Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation. “He’s clearly picking and choosing loyal members.”

Related: Top lawmakers passed DeSantis’ priorities. It didn’t save their Tampa Bay projects.

A spokesperson for DeSantis’ campaign acknowledged a Tampa Bay Times email requesting comment but did not provide a statement as of Monday evening. Neither Passidomo nor Harrison responded to voicemails asking about the endorsements.

One prominent rumor is that Rodrigues will land a job with the DeSantis administration, possibly as chancellor of the Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s public universities. A statement from Senate leadership praising Rodrigues’ service said they are “pleased for the opportunity he has to further ensure world class education opportunities for our students.”

Reached by phone, Rodrigues declined to comment on where he’s going next.

In addition to the higher-profile endorsements of Martin and Collins, neither of whom responded to requests for comment, DeSantis has also backed a few other Senate candidates, including Reps. Bryan Avila of Miami-Dade and Jay Trumbull in the Panhandle, and previously cleared the field for Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who had faced a potentially tough primary.

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He’s also already begun to wade into other races, announcing his endorsement of 10 school board candidates around the state on Monday. His political team also released a DeSantis Education Agenda survey for candidates to show how closely their ideology aligns with the governor’s.

More than the moves themselves, Book said she was disturbed by the optics.

“It’s not lost on me that he is completely disrespecting an incoming female president in this way,” she said. As long as Republicans continue to hold the chamber as expected, Passidomo will be the third woman in state history to serve as Senate president.

“I do believe this is going to create a very, very interesting power dynamic and bring a different battle to the Florida Senate,” Book said.

Christian Ziegler, vice-chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said too much is being made of the palace intrigue behind the endorsements. His wife, Bridget, is one of the school board candidates who received one.

“Gov. DeSantis is pretty clear: He’s going to step up and support individuals that support his agenda,” he said, predicting that a DeSantis endorsement will be a “game-changer” for candidates not just in Republican primaries but also in the general election.

“He’s just a conservative animal out there for us,” Ziegler added. “If he wants to endorse in some races, that’s his right to do that, and I think voters going to take that very seriously.”