Ron DeSantis attempts to take over the GOP-led Florida Senate

Ron DeSantis attempts to take over the GOP-led Florida Senate

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Ron DeSantis is governor of the state of Florida, but also is increasingly trying to be the de facto head of the state’s Republican-led Senate.

DeSantis is using his political sway to recruit Republican Senate candidates to run who don’t have the backing of GOP Senate leadership. The goal is to build a coalition of GOP senators with more political loyalty to him than their own Senate Republican leadership, which has had an uneasy relationship with DeSantis over the past several months.

It’s a continuation of DeSantis’ one-sided relationship with the Florida Legislature, which has bowed to his demands to pass laws to punish Disney Corp. and redo congressional redistricting to create maps more advantageous to Republicans. DeSantis’ influence among state lawmakers has grown as his stock rises with national Republicans, and he is considered among a top tier candidate to run for president in 2024.

The latest examples came Wednesday when DeSantis backed two newly-filed Republican Senate candidates that did not have the support of incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo (R-Naples) and her leadership team.

DeSantis is publicly enlisting Republican Jay Collins, a former Green Beret who is currently running in the 15th Congressional District, to run in a Tampa-area Florida Senate seat currently held by Democrat Janet Cruz. The entire Republican Senate leadership, however, is already backing Shawn Harrison, a former Republican state representative, to challenge Cruz.

“Proud to support @JayCollinsFL for Senate District 14. Jay is a conservative, a fighter, and a veteran,” DeSantis said in a tweet. “He was a Green Beret and is a Purple Heart amputee. I look forward to serving alongside him in Tallahassee.”

Senate Majority, the committee that coordinates Senate Republican races, has already spent more than $40,000 backing the campaign of Harrison, who is expected to leave the race if Collins gets in. Harrison did not return a request seeking comment.

DeSantis also announced on Twitter that state Sen. Ray Rodrigues (R-Estero) was resigning from the Senate. In the same tweet, he endorsed Lee County GOP Chair Jonathan Martin to fill the southwest Florida seat, a powerful signal that will likely clear the field.

Rodrigues will now likely either replace Marshall Criser, who has served as chancellor of the State University System since 2014, or take over as president of Florida Gulf Coast University.

“He is considering whether to go to the [Florida Board of Governors] where Marshall Criser is not retiring but moving onto something else, or there is still the possibility of him being interested in FGCU,” an official with the DeSantis administration told POLITICO.

The official downplayed any tension between DeSantis and Senate leaders, who have repeatedly had their preferred candidates pushed out by the governor.

“I know the governor has talked to Sen. Passidomo and we have been in coordination,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Passidomo did not respond to a request for comment.

If Rodrigues replaces Criser, it would also give DeSantis a key ally in a position that wields power over 12 state universities, institutions that have been a frequent target of the Republican governor and other GOP leaders who criticize “liberal” higher education curriculum.

Rodrigues has played a major role in crafting higher education policy in Florida throughout recent legislative sessions, including signing on as a cosponsor for a 2022 package that, among other things, is set to trigger a breakup between colleges and their longstanding accreditation board. The legislation also could shake up the tenure process at universities by introducing a new review system, something that Rodrigues could be tasked with implementing.

Senate leadership was initially caught off guard by DeSantis’ tweet announcing Rodrigues’ departure from the Senate, but nearly two hours later responded with a statement from Passidomo, current Senate President Wilton Simpson and future Senate President Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula) thanking Rodrigues. In the same statement, they all endorsed Martin.

“Ray Rodrigues has been a tremendously effective leader and a truly impactful member of the Florida Senate,” read the statement. “We are so pleased for the opportunity he has to further ensure world class education opportunities for our students and look forward to his continued success.”

The Wednesday moves were not DeSantis’ first push into Senate Republicans internal politics.

DeSantis in March endorsed state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill), who was headed toward a Senate GOP primary against fellow state Rep. Ralph Massullo (R-Lecanto). Massullo almost immediately dropped out of the race after the governor endorsed Ingoglia.

DeSantis endorsed Collins, Martin and Ingoglia without consulting or getting buy-in from Senate leaders.

Similarly, DeSantis opened up several races to allies by appointing state senators to government posts. DeSantis created an open Senate seat after he appointed Republican state Sen. Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah) to become Florida’s education commissioner, which in turn led state Rep. Brian Avila (R-Hialeah) to vie for the seat. After state Sen. George Gainer (R-Panama City) resigned, state Rep. Jay Trumbull jumped into the race. Trumbull is seen as a close ally to the governor.

If each DeSantis-picked candidate is elected to the Senate, the governor would have a bloc of five senators with a significant degree of political loyalty to him and his priorities. In a 40-member chamber, it means they could come close to killing any legislation, including leadership priorities, if they join Democrats and vote “no.” That’s a bit of a reset for a chamber that for years included factions that made it unpredictable and capable at any time of bucking its own leadership.

Typically in Florida, incoming legislative leaders in the House and Senate coordinate and run their own campaigns, free of outside interference from governors who might prefer candidates but withhold endorsing or elbowing out leadership-backed candidates.

“Ron DeSantis is painting his masterpiece on the canvas of the Florida Senate,” said a veteran Republican consultant who was granted anonymity to discuss the Senate dynamics. “For the first time you have Senate Leadership’s hand being pushed to go outside ‘the club’ building an army of conservative thinkers and Federalists that will ensure DeSantis’ policies thrive for years to come.”

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Last Update: Wed, 15 Jun 22 22:36:10