Peter Schorsch: Politicos watch parade — of candidates in 2016 races

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Robert and Nancy Watkins may be the two most essential players in Florida’s political universe. Through their South Tampa accounting firm moves tens, if not hundreds, of millions in political contributions and expenditures.

Nancy is the treasurer for dozens of candidates and committees, including Conservative Solutions PAC, the most prominent super PAC supporting Marco Rubio’s bid for the White House. Among her too-many-to-name Florida clients are several A-list members of Congress and the Florida Legislature.

There is probably no adviser, consultant, or vendor with more direct connections to Florida politicians than this power couple. Their services are not cheap. In 2009, Florida Trend cited several campaign finance reports to determine that the accountants charge federal campaigns north of $2,500 to keep the books.

But candidates gladly pay because there are few people in the country who know more about campaign finance. More important, the two are known for their ethics and integrity in an industry that faces constant scrutiny.

Each year, the couple host parties during Gasparilla Season at their stately waterfront home. Gasparilla is an annual celebration that began in 1904. Held each year in late January or early February, it celebrates the legend of José Gaspar (Gasparilla), a mythical Spanish pirate who supposedly operated in Southwest Florida.

Gasparilla isn’t Mardi Gras, but it is the third largest parade in the country and a helluva good time.

Saturday was the Children’s Gasparilla Extravaganza, an alcohol-free event, celebrating the return of the pirates to Tampa Bay. My wife, daughter, and I gladly accepted an invitation to view the parade from the Watkinses’ Bayshore Boulevard home. And while my daughter was there for the beads and the floats, I was there for the politics as the party draws many of Tampa Bay’s leading politicos (at least those fortunate enough to receive an invite from the Watkinses.)

Because I had a Bloody Mary in hand for most of the day, the conversations I had with those in attendance are not for attribution, but, taken together, they do offer a telling glimpse into the state of Florida politics.

Many in the crowd — former House Speaker Will Weatherford among them — are supporters of Jeb Bush for president. Despite Bush’s low standing in most polls, they are not ready to throw in the towel on the former governor. There is a great deal of hope that Bush can rebound in New Hampshire.

One thing was clear about these Bush supporters: if their guy loses, they are not getting in line behind Marco Rubio. They, like much of the Republican establishment, will scatter.

The crowd, by and large, does not like Ted Cruz. And while they don’t understand the appeal of Donald Trump, they’re not as repulsed by him as they are by Cruz. Some see in Trump what they saw in Rick Scott.

In fact, one of the partygoers, Scott Hopes, a gubernatorial appointee to the state executive of the Republican Party of Florida, made this point to me.

It wasn’t just Iowa and New Hampshire that the parade-watchers were discussing. The up-until-now sleepy race for the U.S. Senate was widely discussed.

Many guests were asking about Carlos Beruff, the Manatee developer thinking about throwing his hat in the ring. Several others, many of whom are major donors to Republican causes, repeated the rumor that beyond Beruff, there is another gazillionaire thinking about jumping into the race.

But the star of the party may have been David Jolly, buoyed by a 20-point lead in the latest poll. With Laura, his lovely new wife by his side and a week of earned media behind him, Jolly was a man in full at the party. Has Jolly finally found his stride?

Down-ballot races were also on full display. And what was happening there can serve as a microcosm of what’s taking place throughout the state.

Redistricting has reshaped Tampa Bay’s state Senate districts, like it has throughout the rest of Florida. There’s now a seat open that encompasses much of south and west Tampa. It’s almost tailor-made for state Rep. Dana Young, who announced this week that she’s running for the seat.

With that domino falling, her battleground state House seat is up for grabs and is being eyed by several serious candidates, including Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman and Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen. If those two run, their seats will be up for grabs. And so on.

It’s Peak Chaos in Florida politics and it’s creating a parade of candidates longer than then one outside the Watkins’ home on Saturday.


Peter Schorsch is a new media publisher and political consultant based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.   

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also the publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.


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