1. Opinion

Adam Smith: Here's the path to a Gov. Jack Latvala

Published Jul. 21, 2017

CLEARWATER — Jack Latvala, the wily Republican state senator and longtime fixture of Tampa Bay politics, probably will announce his candidacy for governor on Aug. 16. He said as much to the more than 100 friends at his vacation home in Maine last weekend.

Much of Florida's political intelligentsia view him as a long shot, which makes sense. Latvala is old school, the kind of pragmatic, generally moderate Republican today's GOP primary electorate has shunned and pilloried in recent years. He looks more like a rumpled granddad who should lay off the ribeyes and ramp up his blood pressure meds than the sort of TV-primped candidate that usually wins statewide elections in Florida.

But don't discount him.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam remains the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination, but even after some of Florida's most politically active corporations have pumped more than $15 million into his campaign he has failed to wrap himself in a cloak of inevitability. Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran raised $2 million in his first month as a potential candidate. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a tea party favorite from northeast Florida with his own deep-pocketed supporters, looks increasingly likely to run, and many observers still see a strong possibility that a wealthy political newcomer could jump in late in the game, as Rick Scott did in 2010.

Therein lies the path for Latvala.

In a four-person race, it takes only 30 percent to win the nomination. When three of the four candidates are likely to be fighting it out over who is the purest hard-right conservative, and that fourth candidate, Latvala, is a political giant in the biggest battleground region of Florida, then the Clearwater Republican no longer even looks all that much like a long shot.

"He's very smart, he cares a lot about Florida, and I don't think he's going to avoid risk if he thinks something is not necessarily the right thing to say politically," said former Secretary of State Jim Smith, a Latvala supporter. "He's got to have at least a three-person race, and the more the better."

Corcoran's pollster, Tony Fabrizio, already dismissed Latvala as a liberal non-factor.

"He is the Paula Dockery of 2018," Fabrizio told Politico recently, referring to the former state senator from Polk County who spent six months running for the gubernatorial nomination in 2010 against Bill McCollum and Rick Scott but dropped out after raising less than $500,000. "He'll flirt with it. He'll use it to raise some money. But at the end of the day, I don't see what his angle is to run for governor. He is to the left of Adam Putnam."

Latvala, 65, has more than $3 million in his political committee, which already makes him a factor. If he can at least triple that over the next year he could be a very serious factor. Certainly, anyone who has watched Latvala in Tallahassee wheel and deal — and shout and cuss and harangue — knows underestimating him is foolish.

"Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump are keen reminders about how wrong smart people can be — nobody gave either of them a chance when they began their respective campaigns," said David Rancourt, another longtime political strategist helping Latvala. "This is a wide-open race — if you can find the resources to mount a competitive race, anything can happen."

It's easy to see how Republican foes, especially Corcoran, could shred Latvala for fighting for in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants at Florida universities. But the Clearwater Republican does start with some built-in advantages.

For one thing, he is the only real businessman in the field, running a printing business for years, along with assorted other business ventures and too many GOP campaigns to count.

As one of Florida's most effective legislators over 15 years in the Florida Senate, he also potentially has some influential allies in his corner, especially Florida's police and firefighter unions he has consistently championed.

He lives in Pinellas County, where Republicans turn out in greater numbers for primaries than any other Florida county except Miami-Dade.

In the greater Tampa Bay area, Latvala has far more personal civic and political connections than Pasco County's Corcoran, who has always been more of a product of Tallahassee than Tampa Bay.

Then there is the Trump factor. Latvala was never a Trump fan, but he does share the president's short fuse and blunt and pugnacious style. That all-too-elusive "authenticity" so many politicians strive for shouldn't be a challenge for Latvala, who, unlike Trump, has a deep understanding of how governing works and how to get things done.

"Jack Latvala brings passion and candor to everything he does," Rancourt said. "Voters tend to gravitate toward candidates who tell it like it is. Jack's pretty good at that."

Gov. Jack Latvala? For whatever it's worth, the last time a guy with a beard became governor of Florida was Marcellus Stearns in 1875.

We surveyed more than 180 veteran of Florida politics last week for our Florida Insider Poll, and 69 percent said they expected Putnam to win the gubernatorial nomination, 14 percent said Corcoran, 7 percent said "someone else," 6 percent DeSantis, and 4 percent Latvala. Keep in mind, however, that Jeb Bush was the overwhelming favorite to win the presidential nomination in our 2016 Florida Insider Polls. Putnam has many strengths, but this is a tough time to be running as Mr. Establishment.

A lot of pieces need to fall in place for Latvala to pull it off in 2018, but the path for an old school Republican to win is not as farfetched as many people think.

Staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this column.