The text message that almost blew up the 2022 Speaker’s race

An excited text message may have cost state Rep. Paul Renner his shot at the Speakership—or kept it in play, if you believe several freshmen House Republicans.

That same text message, whoops, also may have violated Florida House Republican Caucus rules governing campaigning for leadership positions.

As Matt Dixon of POLITICO Florida so capably reported, Renner “held an abrupt meeting of House freshman Republicans Thursday, just 15 minutes before the House was set to take the floor to pass its $81 billion proposed budget.”

The meeting came after at least two separate Wednesday night dinners were held by those opposed to Renner’s bid for Speaker.

What was not clear—at least, before now—is why Renner felt it so necessary to address his colleagues.

The must-read retelling of those events, especially with the damning headline “Renner on ropes…“, almost delivered a fatal blow to the Jacksonville Republican’s bid to lead the Florida House beginning in 2022.

But as it becomes clear what prompted Renner to speak out last Thursday, the shadow race may be in the same position it was a week ago.

“No one is out of it,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, himself a potential contender for House Speaker, when asked if he thought Renner or any other candidate was truly on the ropes.

That’s better than Renner may have expected after the POLITICO story broke, just as many lawmakers were returning home for the Easter holiday.

Renner declined to speak to POLITICO Florida or Florida Politics, but lawmakers and political consultants close to Renner say he was forced to do something after state Rep. Joe Gruters shared with him a text message he received Wednesday evening from fellow Republican Alex Miller.

Miller’s text essentially said that the Speaker’s race is narrowing to a choice between Ralph Massullo and James “J.W.” Grant.

Now was the time for Gruters to join a coalition of freshmen legislators who would not only serve as a block on Renner, but also keep the eventual winner to one of those who joined this eventual ‘Group of 14.’ There are currently 27 freshmen Republicans in the House, so 14 votes are needed to secure the Speakership.

Miller confirms that she did text Gruters Wednesday evening but would not say what she wrote. At least seven members of the freshmen class of House Republicans—representing the Renner camp, the anti-Renner coalition, and those unaffiliated with either faction—confirmed the gist of Miller’s text.

Instead of joining the coalition Miller was describing, Gruters alerted Renner to the movements taking place against him. Gruters would not discuss the content of Miller’s text, nor would he go on the record about what he told Renner.

He did say that whatever actions he took last Wednesday evening and Thursday morning were done so to make sure that the spirit of the rules instituted this year by Speaker Richard Corcoran were adhered to.

The new rules stipulate that members cannot select a leader until after the 2017 Session. Members are not suppose to solicit support for a leadership bid until after June 30.

Supporters of Renner believe that Miller’s text may have violated Republican Caucus guidelines which prohibit soliciting support for a leadership contender. Even some of those opposed to Renner’s bid believe the Miller text message “certainly violated the spirit of the rules,” as one outspoken member of the Wednesday dinner parties conceded.

Miller said whatever she wrote did not violate the rules.

Unfortunately for Renner, the Miller text message has served as a sort of antibody that has infected his leadership bid in ways not originally planned.

Instead of gaining sympathy for being plotted against, the way Renner responded to the situation—by feverishly making the case for his bid at the caucus meeting coordinated by state Rep. Chuck Clemmons—he turned off as many of his colleagues as he rallied.

“It was a gift to him if handled differently,” said one House member who is in the mix for Speaker. “But it wasn’t.”

Then again, the fact that the race has not spiraled away from Renner has to be considered a partial victory. “Everything has settled back down,” said Donalds, who spoke with Florida Politics on Easter Sunday.

“After that POLITICO article came out, a lot of those on the fence got spooked,” said one member who was inclined to join the coalition but has now reverted to a neutral position.

So what happens next?

As Dixon first noted and as FP can report in fuller detail (the complete draft rules can be read below), Massulo and Rep. Mike Grant have been tasked with writing draft rules to guide the class’s decision-making process.

A vote would take place July 1 in a meeting where “no outside communications are allowed until the meeting is adjourned.”

Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for Corcoran’s office, told Dixon that the freshmen Republicans “are not an official subset of the overall House Republican caucus, so they can do what they want, but that must fall within the caucus rules.”

There are complaints that the freshmen are writing rules that do not conform with current caucus rules—it’s never been clear whether a leader is to be chosen just by their class or by the entire caucus—and could bind future classes to guidelines they may not want in place.

So far,  Corcoran has stayed above the jockeying. But the Speaker is making it clear he’s not pleased with the timing of the drama unfolding.

“Leadership has been very clear: Follow the rules and all members’ focus over the next few weeks should be on fighting to positively impact the lives of the people we represent,” said Corcoran.

Of course, guessing who will be Speaker is the most exciting parlor game in Tallahassee. What makes this game so interesting is how varied the opinions are about how it will turn out.

The last race for Speaker was essentially a binary choice between Eric Eisnaugle and Chris Sprowls. The current situation involves at least seven Republicans who could win the leadership post: Renner, Grant, Donalds, Massullo, Miller, Erin Grall, and Frank White.

Randy Fine has consistently been reported to be in the mix, but at least one dozen freshmen Republicans have told Florida Politics over the last 72 hours that Fine’s chances of winning are very limited. Fine is a brilliant, wildly successful businessman, but he will likely have to content himself with a spoiler role.

Based on the discussions FP has had with members of the freshmen caucus, here is where the race shakes out:

— Renner can count on these definite votes: Clemmons, Randy Payne, and Clay Yarbrough.

— Renner would like to believe he has fellow northeast Florida Republican Jason Fischer in his camp, but there is increasing talk of Fischer being a swing vote, if not a dark horse candidate himself for Speaker.

— Renner’s camp also likes to claim Cyndi Stevenson as one of its supporters, but some of her colleagues say she is part of a block comprised of Grall, Amber Mariano, Miller, and Jackie Toledo. Another Central Florida member, Tom Leek, is also a presumed Renner vote.

— Renner may also receive the support of an ‘old man’s caucus’ comprised of Don Hahnfeldt, Sam Killebrew and Stan McClain.

Gruters, a political animal to his core, is a definite independent. He may like Renner, but he also would support Miller or Mike Grant. He’ll also know when it’s time to cut a deal to join the herd rather than being run over it.

There is a faction of north Florida members who will likely move and vote as a bloc: White, Mel Ponder, Jayer Williamson, and Cord Byrd. The inside joke about three of these members is that their roommate in Tallahassee is Grant. One thing is for certain, come July 1, either White will be a candidate for Speaker or Grant will be, but not both.

Donalds and Bob Rommel are pretty much joined at the hip. Although Donalds is a viable candidate for Speaker, he and Rommel may also be the ultimate swing votes in this contest.

If the Massulo-Grant faction is close to locking up the 14 votes it needs to keep the decision to just that group, Donalds and Rommel may be votes #13 and #14.

In fact, as of Monday morning, one Republican consultant close to House leadership and who has several clients in the freshman class say their phone has blown up all weekend with talk that the Group of 14 is, in fact, close to securing the votes it needs to keep the race to a choice of Massulo or Grant.

If that’s so, someone should make sure Alex Miller does not text anyone about it.

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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