With primaries still 15 months away and the general election 17 months off in a state that has a history of upending early conventional wisdom, most Florida voters haven’t begun to focus on the 2018 governor’s race.
But the campaign is well underway.
Republican Adam Putnam has already completed a 22-city bus tour and parted ways with his campaign manager. Democrat Gwen Graham has already logged four of her signature “work days” in four different media markets and vied with fellow Democrat Andrew Gillum for Palm Beach County endorsements. Contributors have already poured millions of dollars into a slew of campaigns and political committees.
With Republican Gov. Rick Scott facing term limits, nine Republicans and six Democrats — most of them political unknowns — have formally opened campaigns. A Libertarian and two no-party candidates have also filed 2018 paperwork with the Florida Division of Elections.
Two-term Agriculture Commissioner Putnam is hoping to lock down the Republican nomination with minimal drama. But House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land-O’Lakes, and state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, could also enter the GOP race. And candidates like Bob White, chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida, are vowing to paint Putnam as an establishment insider.
Democrats, who haven’t won a Florida governor’s race since the late Gov. Lawton Chiles squeaked to re-election in 1994, already have a competitive primary in the works. Former U.S. Rep. Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Gillum and Winter Park businessman Chris King have begun traveling the state and making their pitches to party activists. Wealthy trial lawyer John Morgan is also considering a Democratic bid, as is Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine — who also recently floated the idea of a no-party candidacy.
The last time Florida had an open governor’s race was in 2010, when then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist opted to run for U.S. Senate rather than pursue a second term as governor.
At this point eight years ago — Memorial Day weekend of 2009 — Crist was a slam-dunk favorite to win the Republican Senate nomination over former House Speaker Marco Rubio. And then-Attorney General Bill McCollum was the consensus favorite to win the GOP nomination for governor.
But Rubio overtook Crist in Republican polls, driving Crist out of the GOP and into a losing no-party bid for Senate in 2010. McCollum and the state’s GOP establishment were blindsided by Scott, a businessman and political novice who didn’t enter the race until April 2010, then spent more than $50 million of his own money to win the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Scott went on to edge Democrat Alex Sink in the general election.
Here’s a quick, early look at some of Florida’s declared and potential 2018 candidates for governor:
• Adam Putnam: When he formally launched his campaign this month with a large rally in his hometown of Bartow, the pro-Putnam Florida Grown political committee already had $8.2 million in the bank. The kickoff rally and subsequent bus tour drew thousands of people and put Putnam’s call for making Florida “the launch pad for the American dream” in all the state’s media markets. But the Putnam campaign has already had a personnel shakeup, with campaign manager Kristin Davison and political director Jared Small leaving.
• Richard Corcoran: The House speaker recently told The Tampa Bay Times he’s interested but won’t decide until 2018 on a campaign that would presumably challenge Putnam from the right. Corcoran took on Scott this year and won, deriding the governor’s Enterprise Florida business incentive program as “corporate welfare” and succeeding in gutting it. While powerful in Tallahassee, Corcoran would face the steep challenge of becoming known and getting his message out statewide.
• Jack Latvala: The Clearwater senator said he’ll decide by June or July whether to enter the race. The owner and CEO of a printing business, Latvala says he has business experience other candidates lack and positions himself as a pragmatist “who’s focused on getting things done…It’s about seeing problems and solving them.” Like Corcoran, Latvala is a key player in Tallahassee who would face statewide name-identification challenges.
• Bob White: The Melbourne resident and owner of a pool-cleaning business says the Liberty Caucus he chairs has a “reach” of perhaps 1,500 people in Florida. He’s emblematic of an anti-establishment strain in the GOP that says Putnam and other elected officials are too cozy with “dark money,” lobbyists and special interests.
• Gwen Graham: She’s the daughter of former Florida Gov. and Sen. Bob Graham and served one term in Congress before being redistricted out of her North Florida seat. She moved $950,000 this month from her old congressional campaign to her Our Florida political committee. Graham is the only woman among the major candidates, and has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, which raises money for female candidates who support abortion rights. She also scored an endorsement from civil rights icon, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Graham voted in the House for the Keystone pipeline, to loosen some of the Dodd-Frank regulations on Wall Street and to tighten vetting of Syrian refugees — stances likely to draw criticism in a liberal-tilted Democratic primary. “It’s a very different responsibility to be a congressional representative from North Florida than to be the governor of the state of Florida…As governor I will be making decisions in the best interests of Florida and Floridians,” she said.
• Andrew Gillum: The Tallahassee mayor, who has held elected office 14 years and once made a bid for Florida Democratic Party chairman, is presenting himself as a progressive change agent. Gillum’s campaign has hired a digital messaging firm used by Bernie Sanders, and his Forward Florida committee has raked in large contributions from liberal luminaries George Soros, Norman Lear and Jane Fonda. State Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, in line to be Senate Democatic leader in 2018, recently endorsed the 37-year-old Gillum and said he represents “a new generation of leaders….The formula that Democrats have had over the past few cycles is to play it safe and maybe it’s time we took a chance on someone young and promising.”
• Chris King: The Winter Park businessman, 38, heads Elevation Financial Group, which develops and revitalizes affordable housing projects. “My background in private enterprise, in building a business that did well by doing good – creating affordable housing all over the southeastern United States – really positions me to serve in Florida, where the politics are broken in Tallahassee,” says King, who has never before run for office. He has put more than $1 million of his own money into his campaign. His Rise And Lead Florida committee has also received $166,000 from King’s father, attorney David King, who represented the Democrat-leaning coalition that successfully overturned portions of the Republican-drawn redistricting plan for congressional and state Senate seats.
• Philip Levine: The Miami Beach mayor has been speaking to Democratic activists over the past year and put $2 million of his own money into his All About Florida committee in March. He’s been expected to launch a Democratic campaign this summer. But he floated the possibility of a no-party run at a recent Tiger Bay lunch in Tampa.
• John Morgan: The outspoken trial lawyer, who lives in Lake Mary and advertises statewide, has poured more than $6.8 million into efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the state and has shown varying degrees of interest in running for governor. “I’ll watch and wait,” he recently told the Orlando Sentinel. Because of his personal wealth, Morgan — like Scott in 2010 — could have the luxury of jumping in late.