Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 11.26.23

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Florida GOP Chair Christian Ziegler is facing serious allegations as his position leading Florida Republicans hangs in the balance.

This week saw more major twists and turns in the roller coaster ride that is Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign. And with tomorrow marking exactly six weeks until the Iowa caucus, DeSantis’ chances are looking as dire as ever.

The latest news: longtime ally Adam Laxalt is out as Chair of Never Back Down, a super PAC which has supported DeSantis’ bid and which absorbed a massive cash haul from the Governor’s state-level fundraising account.

Laxalt says he’s still supporting the Governor’s bid, and cited a desire to spend more time with family after he lost his mother over the Summer. But the move comes less than two weeks after Never Back Down CEO Chris Jankowski departed, throwing into question the stability of the super PAC.

And on top of all that, POLITICO broke the news late Saturday that Kristin Davison, who took over as CEO following Jankowski’s exit, was fired. The move reportedly came on Friday, just nine days into her tenure. Scott Wagner will now serve as interim sacrificial lamb CEO.

DeSantis’ allies have already set up a new super PAC, Fight Right, amid months of reported tension between the DeSantis team and Never Back Down. Fights over spending, strategy and more have led to this point, where DeSantis is spinning off a new organization with just weeks to go until the first votes are cast.

All of that chaos is bad enough, but this week also saw the influential conservative group Americans for Prosperity officially endorse Nikki Haley for President. That’s another major notch in Haley’s belt as she jockeys with DeSantis to become the primary Republican alternative to Donald Trump.

It’s often hard for candidates in such a downward spiral to overcome headlines full of turmoil. But DeSantis managed to snag an opportunity to do just that this week, appearing in prime time on Fox News to debate California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Deciding who won that debate was mostly filtered through partisan lenses. But Newsom clearly got some shots in on DeSantis. And while DeSantis performed respectably (as he has in most debates), “respectably” is just not good enough when your poll numbers continue to nosedive.

The DeSantis camp has constantly chirped about how they’ve won each and every debate, yet his poll numbers are as low as ever. DeSantis had an opportunity to regain some momentum with a home run debate performance. But yet again, the Governor failed to secure a standout moment.

His main super PAC is shedding leaders, money and organizers are flooding to his opponents, and the Governor’s poll numbers are at or near their nadir. Anything is possible with dozens of criminal indictments hanging over the Republican front-runner. But this is not the résumé of an eventual nominee with a month and a half to go before voters start weighing in.

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

Winners

Honorable mention: Abortion advocates. Pro-abortion groups still have work to do before a potential constitutional amendment can even make the ballot. But a poll this week showed that if voters do get a say on the matter, the referendum could very well be successful and drive turnout.

The University of North Florida survey showed 62% of voters would be in favor of adding language to Florida’s Constitution protecting abortion rights. That’s above the 60% needed for a constitutional amendment to pass, though the 2-point margin is within the poll’s 4.37-point margin of error.

Regardless, it appears to at least be in range to pass. And given the evidence throughout the country of the abortion issue post-Dobbs turning out Democrats voters, the poll’s results are welcome news for Democrats looking to rebound after a resounding defeat in Florida last cycle.

Will the question make the ballot at all though? Organizers still need a few hundred thousand verified signatures. And the Florida Supreme Court has to sign off on the ballot’s language. But the push seems popular. And if it does reach the 2024 ballot, the question could significantly affect next year’s results. Stay tuned.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Vern Buchanan. We shouted out the Congressman weeks ago when it was revealed he would hold the first major fundraiser for new House Speaker Mike Johnson. Well, that event took place this week at Buchanan’s home, resulting in Republicans raising $1.4 million.

Buchanan hosted the Louisiana Republican as he aims to get his feet under him to lead House Republicans into 2024. And Johnson had high praise for the Longboat Key Republican at this week’s event.

“Vern Buchanan doesn’t need to serve in Congress, but he does it because he has the right heart, a servant’s heart,” Johnson said. “This is exactly what the Founders envisioned that they’d come to serve in Congress in a patriotic manner like Vern.”

U.S. Reps. Kat CammackByron DonaldsNeal DunnLaurel LeeAnna Paulina LunaMaría Elvira Salazar and Greg Steube were also reportedly on hand for the fundraiser.

As we said when the event was first announced, this is a chance for Buchanan to gain favor with Johnson after Republicans under former Speaker Kevin McCarthy passed over Buchanan for the Ways & Means Chair position. Bringing in over $1 million should help Buchanan prove his case that he’s effective at bringing in the cash needed for Republicans to have a successful presidential election cycle.

The biggest winner: Government transparency. A Thursday Florida Supreme Court ruling marked a win for open government advocates, as Justices ruled that the Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment does not allow officers accused of shooting suspects to hide their identity from the public.

The Supreme Court was taking up a case dealing with two incidents of police officers shooting and killing suspects in the line of duty. Reporters were stonewalled in trying to report the names of those officers, with law enforcement citing Marsy’s Law as a shield.

The 2018 constitutional amendment offered crime victims many different rights, including the right to have their information hidden from public view in order to be protected.

The relevant language from the amendment states that victims have the “right to prevent the disclosure of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family, or which could disclose confidential or privileged information of the victim.”

The police in these cases argued that they were assaulted before using deadly force, and were therefore victims of a crime who could keep their names private.

But Justice John Couriel wrote in a unanimous opinion that the above section of Marsy’s Law does not necessarily allow officers — or any crime victim — categorical anonymity.

Couriel held that a victim’s name becoming public does not necessarily mean someone will be able “to locate or harass the victim or the victim’s family.” The Justice left open state lawmakers approving language to make the rules more clear, but said the amendment language itself wasn’t ironclad here.

Marsy’s Law for Florida, which pushed for the 2018 amendment, wasn’t thrilled with the decision as applied to all crime victims. But with regard to the issue at hand — police using this loophole to shield cops accused of shooting and killing someone — the ruling is a welcome win for citizens aiming to hold law enforcement accountable for actions that end in the loss of life, and is leading to immediate results.

Losers

Dishonorable mention: Joseph Ladapo. Ladapo has served as a lightning rod ever since being named Florida’s Surgeon General. Vaccine skeptics on the Right have boosted him, while many on the Left have painted him as a crackpot.

This week, however, it was Ladapo’s cushy gig at the University of Florida (UF) which had him in the crosshairs. And boy, does it look like UF got scammed into giving this guy tenure to appease the Governor.

Landing a tenured university role after being appointed to a position like Surgeon General isn’t unheard of (though it sure does seem a bit swampy). But when these things happen, the university typically does more due diligence than UF did with Ladapo.

Arek Sarkissian of POLITICO laid out in infuriating detail how other UF employees are feeling shafted by the university’s handling of Ladapo. Rather than spend months vetting Ladapo, his application sailed through in three weeks. Since then, here’s what the university has gotten:

— Ladapo was expected to bring in $600,000 in grant money. So far, Ladapo is only $600,000 away from reaching that mark.

— Colleagues hoped Ladapo would carry out major research projects. That hasn’t happened yet, but he did cite faulty research pushing vaccine skepticism and wrote an entire book on the topic.

— Ladapo visited the campus two times during his first year because he is just that committed.

Oh, and UF is paying him $262,000 for this fine work, in addition to his $250,000 Surgeon General salary. Sounds like a great gig if you can get it!

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Skylar Zander. Zander, the state Director of AFP-Florida, isn’t responsible for the national organization’s decision to endorse Haley over DeSantis. But nevertheless, good luck to Zander if he tries to get a meeting with Florida’s Governor regarding next month’s Legislative Session (not to mention DeSantis’ two years remaining as Governor should his 2024 presidential bid fail).

Zander has led the Florida arm of AFP since 2019, the year DeSantis began his first term as Governor. Since then, Zander has worked with Republicans on major legislative wins, from insurance changes to criminal justice reform to school choice expansion and more.

But with the national org spurning DeSantis for Haley, it remains to be seen just how much attention DeSantis will give AFP-Florida going forward.

Again, that’s not Zander’s fault. But the Governor has shown vindictiveness for those who have refused to bend the knee, from Sen. Joe Gruters to entertainment giant Disney.

Given AFP-Florida’s history of pushing conservative policy changes, it’s likely that the Governor and the GOP-controlled Legislature will end up aligning with the group’s aims anyway. The group, however, may lose direct access to DeSantis if the Governor feels jilted.

The biggest loser: Christian and Bridget Ziegler. Christian Ziegler, a self-proclaimed Christian conservative who has led a crusade against inappropriate LGBTQ materials in public schools both before and during his tenure as Republican Party of Florida Chair, is now being accused of sexual battery.

The woman who made the allegations apparently had at least one previous consensual sexual encounter with Christian Ziegler and his wife, Bridget. Did we mention Bridget is the co-founder of Moms for Liberty, an organization at the forefront of that fight against LGBTQ materials in schools?

Now, a complaint doesn’t equal a conviction. Right now, the report is at the investigation stage. No charges have been filed, and Christian Ziegler is entitled to due process. Bridget Ziegler is not accused of any criminal wrongdoing here whatsoever.

But a follow-up report from the Orlando Sentinel cites an affidavit where the couple confirms they had a sexual encounter with this woman. What couples want to do behind the scenes is their business. But running this arrangement while professing to be proud Christians and leading a militant fight against LGBTQ content? We’ve seen similar stories of social issue hypocrisy from Republican politicians before, and is yet another glaring example.

Already, DeSantis is calling for Christian Ziegler to resign as Chair of the Florida GOP. In this era of nearly blind party loyalty regardless of the offense (see Trump, Donald), one might think the Republican Governor would be more likely to go to bat for Ziegler. Indeed, a handful of local party Chairs defended Ziegler in the hours following the first reports of the allegations.

But the state party shivved DeSantis at the Florida Freedom Summit, where DeSantis got an afternoon speaking slot in his own state hours before Trump delivered the keynote. That likely removed any incentive for DeSantis to stick his neck out for Ziegler as he faces these significant allegations.

Even if a potential criminal case dies out, how are the Zieglers supposed to be taken seriously as paragons of the religious fight against LGBTQ content while taking part in their own ménage-à-trois?

At the very least, this is another entry in the file of “he/she doth protest too much.” Depending on how the investigation unfolds, the party Chair could be staring down court proceedings, which would be a huge distraction from his job of blindly defending his party’s leading presidential nominee as he also stares down court proceedings.

The party of law and order, everyone!

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].


6 comments

  • James L Wilson

    December 3, 2023 at 6:58 am

    It is hard to accept Vern Buchanan as a winner when he voted with Mike Johnson to keep George Santos in Congress. The GOP is the Swamp.

  • Ocean Joe

    December 3, 2023 at 7:34 am

    The last section eviscerating the Republican chair and the party seems extremely biased and one sided. More, please. Much more.

  • Michael K

    December 3, 2023 at 8:56 am

    Lapado is a joke and has no business “serving” as our Surgeon General. And he just bought a $1.7 million mansion 150 miles away from UF. He is being paid well by taxpayers to ignore science and do the bidding of a failing candidate who will put lives at risk for his political gain. He needs to go.

  • rick whitaker

    December 3, 2023 at 9:16 am

    is there a state with worse politicians than florida? the 6 creeps that voted to keep santos in congress should lose their jobs. remember, on this issue the whole country is watching.

  • ScienceBLVR

    December 3, 2023 at 10:38 am

    As a Pinellas resident, I’m disgusted Ladapo will be a neighbor. Keeping my fingers crossed I don’t run into him at the gas station…

  • rick whitaker

    December 3, 2023 at 3:53 pm

    scienceBLVR, please get on the internet as soon as you see him and let others know where he’s at. he needs protesters up in his face.

Comments are closed.


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