Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 7.2.23

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The Seminole Tribe of Florida got a major legal win, while Rep. Fabián Basabe is dealing with legal troubles of his own.

Steve Cortes, an adviser for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential bid, said this week what many analysts and political opponents already have: that DeSantis’ bid is still struggling to gain enough traction to overcome front-runner Trump.

But those comments coming from DeSantis’ campaign operation itself set off a whole lot of negative national headlines for the Florida Governor.

Cortes does (sincerely) deserve some credit here. Appearing on a Twitter Spaces event, he gave a perfectly reasonable take on the 2024 GOP Primary contest as it stands now.

“Look, right now in national polling, we are way behind. I’ll be the first to admit that. OK?” Cortes said. “It’s an uphill battle. I don’t think it’s an unwinnable battle by any stretch, OK? But clearly Donald Trump is the runaway front-runner, particularly since the indictments.”

He’s not wrong. Cortes went on to argue that polling in the first four states is more favorable to DeSantis, but the Governor is still massively behind there as well, so it’s not clear as of now that those early contests will be the springboard he and Cortes want them to be.

But Cortes basically made the case that while DeSantis is down now, the race is not “unwinnable” and they are working in the early states to get an edge. Most would agree.

When you openly admit, however, that your own candidate is “way behind” in national polling — especially when he was seen as the biggest threat to Trump prior to entering the race, and has seen no significant bump following his announcement — then you’re going to court some not-so-nice headlines.

The remarks were picked up widely by national outlets and framed as DeSantis’ official team confirming what outsiders have been saying for weeks. The more the narrative gets baked in that DeSantis’ efforts to position himself as a Trump-killer are a total dud, the harder it becomes to break that narrative.

Cortes’ comments may have not been as severe as some read them, but they nevertheless caused his boss a whole bunch of headaches this week and reinforced the idea that DeSantis is failing to serve as the primary Trump alternative for Republican voters. Eventually, people are going to start looking for another to serve in that role.

Now, it’s on to our weekly game of winners and losers.

Winners

Honorable mention: Casey DeSantis. DeSantis 2024 is still struggling to take off, but is DeSantis 2026 gaining steam?

No, we’re not talking about Gov. DeSantis running for a third term in 2026. He’s barred from doing so by term limits. But his team may be positioning his wife, Casey DeSantis, to mount a bid to succeed him.

This week Casey DeSantis took her “Mamas for DeSantis” group national with a hype video and an event in Iowa. She made a similar push to line women up behind her husband during his 2022 gubernatorial re-election bid. Now, with Gov. DeSantis’ approval ratings among women in the gutter, Casey DeSantis is attempting to help turn those numbers around in early states.

But more relevant to 2026, she also appeared solo at an event in Iowa this week as part of the Mamas for DeSantis launch. Yes, for now, this and any future similar events will ostensibly be aimed at helping her husband find some footing in the presidential race. Of course, if he manages to turn it around and win, Casey as First Lady would obviously not entertain running for Governor.

The odds of that happening remain low, however, as Trump continues his iron grip on the GOP base. Gov. DeSantis can return to his job as Governor should he fail to get the GOP presidential nomination. But that begs the question of what will happen come 2026 when he hits term limits.

One answer could see him pushing Casey to run, and putting her out on the trail without the Governor could be one way of getting her ready for making a run to succeed him in 2026.

Of course, there are plenty of other Republicans rumored to want to run. But as long as the Governor doesn’t completely tank his approval ratings in the state with this run for President — a likelihood not entirely off the table given his repeated fails so far — his backing of Casey as his preferred successor would at least make those other candidates think twice before jumping in.

And hey, building a familial dynasty in Florida would be a decent consolation prize for a failed 2024 presidential run.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Joe Saunders. Former Rep. Saunders just solidified his path to another appearance on a General Election ballot, securing endorsements from Senate Democratic Leader-designate Jason Pizzo and House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell in his House District 106 bid.

Saunders previously represented parts of Central Florida in the early 2010s before taking over as political director for Equality Florida. Now seeking the HD 106 seat, which covers the Miami-Dade County coast between Miami Beach and Aventura, Saunders has support from Democratic leadership.

“This election is about more than just choosing a Representative; it’s about determining the future of our community,” said Pizzo, who also represents parts of coastal Miami-Dade.

“Joe Saunders understands the issues at stake and has the experience and commitment to deliver meaningful change. HD 106 deserves a Representative who shares our values and is focused on lowering costs, supporting small businesses, and protecting our natural resources. Joe is the right person for the job, and I am proud to endorse him in this race.”

The move is significant, as Democrat Jordan Leonard, who lost to now-Republican Rep. Fabián Basabe in 2022 by just a few hundred votes in a shocking upset, had previously said he was mulling another run. Nabbing the Democratic nomination just got harder, however, with leadership signaling Saunders is their preferred candidate.

“Joe Saunders’ unwavering commitment to public service and dedication to his community make him the clear choice for (HD 106),” Driskell added. “Passionate about the challenges Floridians face, Joe has demonstrated courageous, result-driven leadership throughout his career. I am proud to endorse such a tireless advocate for freedom and equality to represent this Miami Beach district.”

HD 106 is seen as a prime pickup opportunity due to its traditional Democratic lean as well as Basabe’s controversial tenure (stay tuned for more on that later in this column).

The biggest winner: Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Seminole Tribe of Florida can start working on getting its sports betting operations back online after a major win in federal court.

That ruling came on Friday, June 30 (yes, technically before this past week but it was a holiday weekend, so cut us some slack). That ruling found that the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act doesn’t bar gambling off tribal lands, but merely regulates gaming operations on those lands.

“IGRA does not prohibit a gaming compact — which is, at bottom, an agreement between a tribe and a state — from discussing other topics, including those governing activities outside Indian lands,” wrote Judge Robert Wilkins of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C.

“The District Court erred by reading into the Compact a legal effect it does not (and cannot) have, namely, independently authorizing betting by patrons located outside of the Tribe’s lands.”

That’s key, as the new Gaming Compact allowed for betting via mobile app. Some litigation surrounding the issue remains ongoing, and it’s unclear how quickly the full gaming options allowed in the Compact could come back online.

But the ruling is certainly a win for the Tribe. Save for a reversal on appeal, the ruling clears a major hurdle for the Seminole Tribe of Florida to restart the Compact, which aimed to bring in $2.5 billion to the state’s coffers in its first five years.

Losers

Dishonorable mention: Basabe. This week, Basabe was hit with a lawsuit from two former staffers accusing the state Representative of sexual harassment.

Nicolas Frevola, who previously alleged Basabe slapped him during an event, filed the lawsuit along with former intern Jacob Cutbirth. The suit references the previously reported slap, as well as another incident where Basabe allegedly slapped Frevola’s backside. Cutbirth also says Basabe grabbed him and tried to kiss him during a December incident.

House Speaker Paul Renner hired an outside firm to look into the prior slapping allegation, but that review was “inconclusive” as to whether Basabe had slapped Frevola.

Now, Basabe is facing a civil lawsuit with multiple additional allegations, upping his legal troubles as Democrats seem to be aligning behind a potential General Election opponent next cycle in Joe Saunders.

Basabe is denying all allegations against him.

“Rep. Basabe will not be litigating this frivolous and meritless lawsuit in the media or giving it any more public attention than it deserves — which is none,” said Basabe attorney Robert Fernandez in comments to the Miami Herald. “Rep. Basabe looks forward to defending himself in court and we believe he will be fully vindicated once these allegations are scrutinized under the rule of law.”

But add this to his less-than-moderate voting record after running as a middle-of-the-road Republican, and he’s going to have a lot of problems defending this seat next cycle.

That is, if he’s even able to hold onto it amid his mounting legal troubles.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Florida’s convention scene. As DeSantis, in his role as Governor, continues to frame Florida as the state where “woke” goes to die, it appears the state’s status as a convention destination may be six feet under soon as well.

We’re not quite there yet, but recent moves are offering troubling signs that event organizers are worried about Florida’s political scene.

The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning canceled an annual conference in Miami, moving it to Chicago instead. The National Society of Black Engineers also relocated its 50th conference out of state. The Con of Thrones, a Game of Thrones convention originally scheduled for Orlando in late August, bailed as well.

The moves come in response to controversial culture war legislation Florida lawmakers have approved in recent years, including measures regulating LGBTQ discussions in schools, anti-“woke” bills, and other polarizing measures.

As we’ve written previously, sometimes the reaction to those measures is overblown or overstates effects. But as the Governor’s team has increasingly embraced cruel and belittling messaging on the 2024 trail, it’s becoming harder to argue these measures are coming from a good faith effort to wade through heated topics.

So it’s no surprise some organizations are pulling back. And local organizers are feeling the impacts. Producers of an Orlando Vaudeville show scheduled for July 15 have grappled with whether a drag performance can go on after Florida passed a law restricting drag performances in the state.

Specifically, the law bars children from attending events with “lewd exposure of prosthetic or imitation genitals or breasts.” A judge has halted enforcement of the law, but that legal wrangling is ongoing and a lack of clarity on how it will play out is raising questions for LCO Vaudeville Spectacular organizers, even though they’ve said the show is not lewd in any manner.

DeSantis’ goal seems to be talking tough on these issues first, providing clarity second. And we’re starting to see the effects.

No doubt many of his supporters will continue backing him without blinking. They’re getting their red meat wins, consequences be damned. But if these cancellations snowball, it could legitimately reorient Florida from its current status as one of the country’s premier tourist havens.

The biggest loser: State University System Board of Governors. FAU was originally slated for the winners column after announcing three finalists to be the university’s next President.

They weren’t being recognized for who was on that list, but rather, for who was not on it: Rep. Randy Fine.

Now, the BOG has halted that search entirely overly utterly ridiculous pretenses in an apparent attempt to muscle Fine back into the fray.

Fine had been rumored for months to drop his Senate bid for a possible position as FAU President, with backing from the Governor’s Office. But after FAU left Fine off the list, the BOG, surely with the Governor’s blessing, stepped in to try and force a redo.

State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues raised issue with FAU apparently asking candidates about their gender identity and what their “preferred pronouns were.”

“These inquiries are wholly irrelevant, inappropriate and potentially illegal,” Rodrigues wrote in a letter to the FAU board of trustees, referring to U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations.

How exactly, though, did questions like that affect the search process? The BOG is clearly trying to hang onto the fact that some “woke” questions got included via AGB Search, the firm which helped with the candidate hunt, and hoping DeSantis acolytes treat that as a valid reason to throw out the university’s process so Fine has another shot.

Another issue Rodrigues raised: that in one private meeting, search committee members held a straw poll to rank their preferences among a field of 60 candidates, which Rodrigues argued violated the state’s Sunshine Law.

This at least has the appearance of a legitimate gripe. But it would be a lot easier to take it seriously if Republicans hadn’t just last year pushed legislation helping shield portions of presidential searches from the state’s public records law.

Fine is famously one of the biggest jerks in The Process. FAU wanted him nowhere near their campus. The fact that the state is throwing a bunch of BS against the wall to raise questions about the selection process is nonsense and a disservice to the university and its students.

Aren’t Republican voters all about draining the government swamp? A university went through a search process, selected its preferred candidates, and now the government is telling them no? This is the very definition of swamp behavior.

FAU just captured the nation’s hearts with its miracle run to the Final Four in the men’s college basketball tournament. The university should use this time to bolster its reputation and grow, not hire a man who calls his political enemies names like “whore” and other epithets and was recently rebuked by the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Hopefully, FAU will stand its ground, fix any gripes the state is now bringing up last minute, and ditch Fine again. But if Team DeSantis is so brazenly willing to use power politics like this, there’s no telling what type of arm-bending is going on behind the scenes and whether FAU will have the luxury of defying the Governor yet again.

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected].


5 comments

  • My Take

    July 9, 2023 at 5:54 am

    Watching Fine get inserted will be grotesque, if it comes to that.
    But watching him as a university president will need a stronger term.

    • StephanieSadlier

      July 9, 2023 at 12:03 pm

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  • Miss Represent

    July 9, 2023 at 6:38 am

    “Cortes’ comments may have not been as severe as some read them. . .”
    Read “may not have been as severe as some SPUN them.” This is the perpetual dilemma of dealing with the American media: if you try to tell the truth they make a fool of you with their lying misrepresentations. Why do they do this? I dunno. Probably because it makes them think that they are doing good for a society in which they really are little more than dead weights.

  • Randy Cowart

    July 9, 2023 at 5:11 pm

    We don’t want, or need, corrupt and unethical groups and corporations representing disgusting and vile wokeness coming to Florida PERIOD, so good riddance!

  • LT

    July 9, 2023 at 5:31 pm

    FAU students and faculty can and should fight back. We did at FGCU when they tried to install Ron’s boy. No way no how. We’re not rolling over like UF and New College.

Comments are closed.


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