There wasn’t supposed to be much of a Republican primary for House District 116.
Rep. Danny Perez won a 2017 special election for the seat by a landslide, easily dispatching former Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla in the primary and trouncing his Democratic challenger with two thirds of the vote in the general.
His reelection a year later was similarly lopsided — HD 116, after all, is a safe Republican seat that Jose “Pepe” Diaz had held since before it was redrawn.
The special election afforded him a redshirt advantage in the House Speaker race for the 2024-26 term, a race the self-described “Spanish Brad Pitt” won with relative ease and without burning bridges.
His main competitor, Bradenton state Rep. Will Robinson, gracefully conceded and Perez followed up by sending a unifying message to his fellow freshmen — no grudges would be held against those who didn’t support his leadership bid and under his watch all members would be selected for leadership positions based on merit, not loyalty.
All indications pointed to a utopic term when he took the gavel. But while Perez earned the support of the 2018 class, he drew the ire current of House Speaker Jose Oliva.
In the runup to the 2020 election, the Miami Lakes Republican has directed considerable resources toward defeating Perez and installing Gabriel Garcia in the seat.
As of last week, Oliva had shipped nearly a half-million dollars to a political committee working to defeat the incumbent. Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership has smeared Perez as a poser Republican while painting Garcia as an avidly anti-abortion, pro-2nd Amendment, and a hard-liner on U.S.-Cuba relations.
The claims have delved into the absurd, with Garcia touting himself as a “lifelong loyal Republican” and a ride or die Trump supporter despite being registered NPA until Nov. 30, 2017, meaning he not only was unable to support his idol in the White House when he was on the primary ballot, he was incapable of opposing his newfound nemesis in the primary for HD 116 three years ago.
Oliva, meanwhile, has been painfully obtuse on his motivations. According to him, he’s propping up the committee because of his opposition to Alex Penelas’ bid for Miami-Dade Mayor and has dodged questions on whether he backs the attacks on Perez.
It’s a weak story. A skim of the committee’s website shows no mention of Penelas, just ad after ad pitching Perez as “disgrace” to the party and extolling Garcia as a “patriot.”
Perez is set to defeat Garcia on Election Day, but the narrative, amplified by Oliva’s resources, has set up a primary election is needlessly expensive.
The incumbent has spent nearly $500,000 from his campaign fund — nearly every dime he has raised — defending the seat he effortlessly won over challengers more formidable than Garcia. His political committee, Conservative for a Better Florida, has burned through cash as well, expending more than $300,000 in the first two weeks of August alone.
Assuming Perez does the expected and squashes his challenger on Election Day, going all in on the primary won’t hamstring him in the general — HD 116 is a decidedly Republican seat and Democratic nominee Bob Lynch has shown few signs of life on the fundraising front.
But a question remains unanswered: Will Oliva continue his vendetta in 2022?