TALLAHASSEE — Republicans and their allies in the state Capitol are flexing political muscle in three hotly contested Democratic primary races in a covert attempt to shape the makeup of the Florida Senate for years to come.
In Tampa Bay's hardest-fought Senate primary, where black Democrats could be decisive, a new mailer in support of Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, makes it appear he has the support of President Barack Obama (he doesn't). The mailer was paid for by a group supported by Republican interests.
In Palm Beach County, the same group, operating under the nebulous name Floridians for a Better Florida, is helping Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, with mailers attacking his rival, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
Democratic voters will decide both races Tuesday, and a third in Broward, where outside forces aligned with Republicans are also at work.
Floridians for a Better Florida is a political committee that was dormant until July, when it suddenly got an infusion of nearly $100,000, enough to pay for an avalanche of mail in the campaign's final days.
Of that total, $30,000 came from the Local Business Advisory Council, a GOP-allied Tallahassee group. An additional $22,500 came from a political committee called Protecting Leadership Principles chaired by former state Rep. Eduardo (Eddy) Gonzalez, a Republican from Miami-Dade.
Gonzalez's committee, also largely inactive for the past year, was suddenly flush with cash thanks to $55,000 from a committee called Jobs for Florida. It's controlled by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, a member of the GOP Senate leadership.
Gonzalez's long-dormant committee also shifted $31,500 to a committee backing Democratic Senate candidate Jim Waldman in Fort Lauderdale.
Without those cash infusions, Gonzalez's committee could not have helped any Democratic candidates.
"A PC (political committee) affiliated with Republican Wilton Simpson gave money to a Republican-led PC in South Florida," said Brian Hughes, a spokesman for Simpson. "What the subsequent committee did, or why it did it, you will have to ask them."
Gonzalez did not respond to a request for comment.
Rouson has an enigmatic reputation for working in concert with Republicans to secure GOP support for money for his district. Rouson is more likely to side with Republicans than most House Democrats and has supported school voucher programs, budgets that excluded health care expansion and got a C+ rating from the NRA this year when most Democrats got F's.
He faces St. Petersburg lawyer Augie Ribeiro, Rep. Ed Narain and former Rep. Betty Reed, both of Tampa, in next week's primary in Senate District 19, which includes parts of Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
Ribeiro has loaned his campaign more than $500,000. He's flooding homes with mailers depicting himself as the only "true Democrat," while painting Rouson and Narain as being too cozy with Republicans.
"I am not surprised whatsoever that Republican interest groups in the state are supporting Mr. Rouson," Ribeiro said.
In a Tampa Bay district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 105,000 voters, any connection to the GOP is a liability. Rouson said he didn't know why a Republican-backed group is helping him.
"I've got a strong Democratic record," said Rouson, who cited his endorsements from fellow Democrats, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. "And here I've got people trying to paint me as a Republican."
Rouson and his campaign consultant, Barry Edwards, countered that Narain also has big-business support.
Narain's political committee, Floridians for Principled Leadership, has received donations from Disney, TECO Energy, the Florida Insurance Council and the Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC.
"I've earned the endorsement of the Florida Chamber," Narain said. "I wouldn't say they're a Republican interest group."
Narain is the only candidate in the Senate race endorsed by such Democratic Party pillars as the Florida Education Association, the Florida AFL-CIO and the party's state Senate leadership.
"It's an open secret in Tallahassee. Republicans are playing in Democratic primaries," Narain said.
One reason why Senate Republicans want to influence the races is because Democrats have a chance to gain from one to three seats this cycle on a redrawn map of districts in a year when many Republicans are uneasy about having Donald Trump at the top of the their ticket.
Republicans now hold 26 of 40 Senate seats, but votes on many hot-button issues are close and unpredictable as moderate Republicans join with liberal Democrats.
For Senate Republicans, it's in their interest that Democratic senators be less liberally inclined and more "transactional," or willing to vote with the GOP on a case-by-case basis.
In the Palm Beach race, a Slosberg victory would elect an unpredictable free spirit and disrupt Democratic unity in advance of the 2018 election cycle.
Clemens has a reputation for getting along with Republicans, but he's slated to become Senate Democratic leader in 2018, a highly partisan position placing him in charge of his party's Senate strategy that year.
Slosberg, a traffic-safety champion known for his neon hats that say "Let Irv Serve," moved into a different district to seek the seat and is running a campaign largely financed by $1.1 million of his money.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who's in line to be Senate president in 2018, confirmed his preference for Rouson — they have worked together representing Manatee County — but said he has not directly put any money behind him.
"I've watched that race very closely," Galvano said. "I've always had a good relationship with him (Rouson). I know I can work with him."
In a Senate Democratic primary in Fort Lauderdale, Republican interests are helping former Rep. Waldman against rival Gary Farmer, a trial lawyer who often clashed with insurance companies as a lobbyist.
Lawyer and lobbyist Mark Delegal, who represents State Farm as well as cities, counties and hospitals, said a lot of business groups in Tallahassee don't want Farmer in the Senate.
"Gary Farmer is a lawyer who makes a fortune suing insurance companies," Delegal said. "That money's got to come from someplace, and it comes from the policyholders of this state."
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @stevebousquet.