In year of political turmoil, Florida candidates stampede to ballot

Visitors snap pictures outside of Florida’s Capitol building in Tallahassee. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Visitors snap pictures outside of Florida’s Capitol building in Tallahassee. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published June 26, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Florida is poised for a volatile political season as a large crop of candidates met Friday's deadline to get on the ballot for the 2016 elections.

The unpredictable force of Donald Trump, a court-ordered redesign of districts and rampant turnover in the state's congressional delegation have combined to unleash a flood of ambition and give voters a wide range of choices:

• Eight of Florida's 27 members of Congress are leaving and all 27 seats are being contested for the first time.

• As more voters reject both major parties and have no party affiliation, no-party candidates will offer a third alternative in two dozen races for U.S. Senate, Congress and the Legislature in a state where nearly three in 10 voters are not members of either major party.

• Eight legislative seats will have primaries open to all voters because only one party fielded candidates. In those rare cases, candidates will be forced to appeal to a wider pool of voters than just the hard-right and hard-left who often dominate primaries.

• Fifteen of 40 state Senate seats are open, and the redrawn districts give outnumbered Democrats hope of making gains.

Political challengers will face the same hurdle as always — a system dominated by special interest money that favors incumbents — but the number of contested races is higher than in the past two cycles and the multitude of candidates is a sign of greater enthusiasm.

"Can you remember an election year that was this volatile?" said Alex Barrio, a first-time state House candidate in Orlando.

Round one is the statewide primary election Aug. 30, but it's closer than it seems. People who vote by mail will get ballots in late July, and early voting can begin Aug. 15.

The final round is the Nov. 8 general election, and history suggests a huge turnout, likely the largest in the state's history.

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Primary battles drawing the most attention and money from the state's massive power structure are three open Senate seats featuring head-to-head battles between House Republicans who are poised to spend millions attacking each other: Doug Broxson against Mike Hill in the western Panhandle, Debbie Mayfield against Ritch Workman on the Space Coast in Brevard County, and Matt Hudson against Kathleen Passidomo in southwest Florida.

"It's different," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who's in line to be House speaker in November. "Anything that's out there that shows you're not a true conservative is going to be a problem."

A fourth Senate primary features two more House Republicans, Dennis Baxley and Marlene O'Toole, and an emerging trend in Florida politics — a candidate with no background in public office but with enormous personal wealth aimed at a self-funded path to victory.

Republican David Gee, 69, a self-described venture capitalist, is running against Baxley and O'Toole in Senate District 12, a new district anchored by the Villages, the mega-retirement community north of Orlando.

Gee has a net worth of $20.2 million to amplify his conservative message, and said he'll spend whatever it takes to win. He has enlisted Rocky Pennington, a direct mail expert and veteran of dozens of legislative campaigns.

"It's time for changes," Gee said. "The political system needs fresh new ideas from people who have not served."

Democrat Michael Steinger, 46, of Palm Beach Gardens, a personal injury lawyer worth $15 million, is running for a state Senate seat in Palm Beach County, where his law firm's billboards are a familiar presence on Interstate 95 and Florida's Turnpike.

Democrat Bernie Fensterwald, 65, of Dunedin, who made a fortune in the self-storage business and is worth $20 million, is challenging Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

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Florida is a closed primary state, but if only one party offers candidates in a race, the primary is open to all voters regardless of party.

However, a decades-old loophole allows write-in candidates with no chance of winning to close a primary to an expanded pool of voters, and a slew of no-name write-ins qualified for various seats as the qualifying deadline approached.

The Legislature has refused to close the loophole, which both parties exploit to exclude voters of the opposing party and independents.

"It's a disgrace. It makes a mockery of the system," said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, who has unsuccessfully filed bills to close the write-in loophole. "It reflects game playing."

The Legislature, which meets every year for 60 days, is the focal point of pitched partisan battles on issues ranging from abortion to capital punishment to guns to immigration.

Republicans hold a 26-14 majority in the Senate and an 81-39 majority in the House.

At least 17 former legislators, some sidelined by term limits, are seeking a return to Tallahassee.

They include Republican House candidate David Rivera of Miami, a former House member and one-term congressman who's appealing $58,000 in fines for ethics violations, and former Sens. Gary Siplin of Orlando and Rod Smith of Gainesville, both Democrats.

In Jacksonville, Democratic Rep. Reggie Fullwood is running for re-election despite awaiting trial for 10 counts of wire fraud and four counts of failing to file income tax returns.

Like most incumbents, Fullwood is better known than his three Democratic rivals. But if he were re-elected, he would be suspended from office if convicted of a felony.

Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.