Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics — Week of 2.25.24

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Failed candidate Anthony Sabatini is trying to troll one of the most respected Republicans in the Senate. Yawn.

The Republican panic over the Alabama in vitro fertilization (IVF) ruling trickled into Florida this week.

A bill from GOP Sen. Erin Grall would have changed Florida’s Wrongful Death Act by ensuring it covers unborn children. Grall said the bill comes from a good place: allowing someone to recover civilly if an act of negligence results in the death of an unborn child.

But as our own Jacob Ogles reported last month, some critics warned the bill could have unintended consequences.

“Some critics say the bill, intentionally or not, could open women who abort pregnancies to lawsuits from partners, and could even expose doctors providing in vitro fertilization services to liability if pregnancies prove unviable.”

Sound familiar?

This is an almost identical rationale which led Alabama IVF clinics to pause service following the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling. As Republicans scramble on how to message that result, Florida decided to dodge the arrows altogether and simply pull Grall’s bill.

Republicans here are already concerned that a potential ballot referendum to protect abortion rights could drive Democratic turnout. Passing a bill that threatened the state’s IVF services would have ensured that reality. Republicans wisely decided to punt given the election year.

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

Winners

Honorable mention: Stuart. With Brightline’s South Florida to Orlando line finally opening late last year, all eyes turned to the Treasure Coast, as Brightline was deciding where to place its next stop.

Currently, the northernmost stop in South Florida is in West Palm Beach. That leaves quite a gap between that stop and Orlando. A station in the Treasure Coast would help serve another populated region and help facilitate travel to major destinations northward and southward.

This week, Stuart officials announced the station would be placed there, with the city winning out over a potential location in Fort Pierce. The selection begins a new chapter after a period of turmoil between the region and Brightline, as officials there in years past were vehemently opposed to the railroad building through the region.

Flash forward to today, and officials were keen on getting a station, with Stuart and Fort Pierce submitting bids for the project. Obviously, Fort Pierce was unhappy with the decision, but the move will be a boon for Stuart and make it easier for residents of Martin and St. Lucie counties to access Brightline’s services.

Construction is said to begin in 2026, with the new station having a target opening of 2028.

Almost (but not quite) the biggest winner: Paul Renner. When has a veto ever felt so good?

Gov. Ron DeSantis did decide to veto HB 1, Renner’s priority bill this Session which aimed to block social media accounts on addictive platforms for users under 16 (that is, 14- and 15-year-olds, as federal law already barred such accounts for minors 13 and younger).

But as DeSantis held the bill and weighed his decision, his team and the Speaker hammered out an alternative, which is set to pass during this final week of Session. The compromise bill (HB 3) would allow parents to have a say in whether their 14- or 15-year-old children can open such accounts. The original bill was an outright ban, giving parents no say.

A court challenge for this bill is still inevitable. And we have been critical in the past when Republicans have approved legislation sure to end up in court, costing big bucks to the state to defend them despite the GOP’s purported insistence on fiscal responsibility.

But while some of those previous bills were mere culture war red meat items, this legislation is contributing to a conversation that we need to have: Should government/tech companies/parents be doing more to keep kids away from doomscrolling the internet?

To the extent this bill is driving a larger conversation on that topic, we think this move has some merit. Whatever the courts do, giving parents a say is a good move, and Renner deserves credit for overcoming skepticism from the Governor’s Office and working on a compromise that accomplishes many of his same goals under the original bill.

The biggest winner: County Commissioners. A bill pushing for term limits for County Commissioners throughout the state has died again this Session, with Senate and House lawmakers unable to resolve their differences.

Republicans tried setting up term limits last year as well, but that bill failed to reach the finish line. Some conservatives want an eight-year cap on County Commission service. But other Republicans in the Senate don’t want to go so far, preferring instead 12-year term limits.

The latest version of the Senate bill would have put this question to voters, requiring a referendum in 2024 in counties that don’t currently have term limits. But it appears once again that differences are too great to resolve.

These local races receive less attention than bigger contests, making it easier for County Commissioners who have established a name to stay in place for long periods. They can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that is still the case … at least until the 2025 Session.

Losers

Dishonorable mention: Christian Ziegler. Honestly, we keep thinking we’re done with this guy. We really want to move on from this story. But alas, thanks in part to the Zieglers’ refusal to leave the public eye quietly, the hits just keep on coming.

A new piece from Michael Barfield of the Florida Trident details how Ziegler refused to respond to police questions surrounding a rape allegation. But that doesn’t mean he was totally silent on the issue.

“This will be a national story,” Ziegler told police as they interviewed him at his home last Fall. “I’m Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, so there’ll be a high public interest in the case.”

And here was the kicker from Ziegler: “I’m more sensitive about the PR side, the political side, than I am about the facts.”

Let us translate that for you: “I’ve made an entire public career out of preaching and lecturing the public about family values, and this is really going to screw me over if news of threesomes and extramarital sex goes public.”

We suppose he wasn’t wrong about that.

Let’s be clear: The rape allegation has not led to charges. But there remains an investigation into whether Ziegler videotaped a sexual encounter with a woman who was not his wife without that woman’s consent.

So there are plenty of facts to be worried about here for the now-former Florida GOP Chair. And despite his insistence that he’s “sensitive about the PR side,” the Zieglers arguably could not have handled this whole fiasco worse if they tried. Are there still more dominoes to fall to embarrass them further?

Almost (but not quite) the biggest loser: Matt Gaetz. As Republicans hauled Hunter Biden to Capitol Hill this week for a closed-door hearing in their ongoing play-acting of an impeachment process to keep the GOP base pacified, one exchange between Gaetz and the younger Biden stood out.

Gaetz sought to delve into Biden’s drug use, a well-reported fact of Biden’s past which he has attempted to overcome. Let’s just say Biden wasn’t keen on fielding such a question from the Panhandle Representative. Here’s the transcript:

— Gaetz: Were you on drugs when you were on the Burisma board?

— Biden: Mr. Gaetz, look me in the eye. You really think that’s appropriate to ask me?

— Gaetz: Absolutely.

— Biden: Of all the people sitting around this table, do you think that’s appropriate to ask me?

— Gaetz: Yeah. Are you going to answer it?

— Biden: I will answer it this way: I have been absolutely transparent about my drug use. Again, I spoke to you all earlier this morning about that. I’m sorry; I’m an addict. I was an addict. I have been in recovery for over four and a half years now, Mr. Gaetz. I work really, really hard at it. Let me answer. I work really hard at it, under an enormous amount of pressure. Was I an addict? Yes, I was an addict. What does that have to do with whether or not you’re going to go forward with an impeachment of my father other than to simply try to embarrass me?

Biden managed a near-impossible feat there of turning a probing question into one that made him look sympathetic while also delivering an epic, yet still subtle, smackdown of Gaetz, given Gaetz’s own past.

Gaetz can bring the heat as well as the next guy, but he was no match for Biden. And this exchange was emblematic of the overall push by House Republicans into the so-called “Biden crime family,” in that it’s failing miserably.

The biggest loser: Anthony Sabatini. Ah, one of our state’s perennial losers is back here again, this time for leading a foolish charge against Senate President Kathleen Passidomo for (*check notes*) focusing more on legislation that actually improves the lives of Floridians instead of inflaming internet troll-driven culture wars.

Weeks ago, we praised Passidomo for showing leadership and good judgment in shutting down a bunch of legislation aimed solely at riling up the fringes. Legislation banning the government display of Pride flags, restricting local officials from taking down Confederate memorials and regulating pronoun usage all died, among other bills.

Serious people understand that these are not issues a majority of Floridians are walking around worrying about. Unserious people, like Sabatini, constantly hype up changes like these to drive engagement on social media and inflame people. He knows that promoting anger among our fellow Floridians drives engagement (and often votes), and doesn’t give a rat’s ass whether it also drives division and distrust.

That’s because Sabatini’s sole focus is on building his profile (again, mainly on social media). So it was again this week when Sabatini, in his role as Lake County Republican Party Chair, censured Passidomo for daring to put the brakes on these virtue-signaling bills.

Sabatini is also mounting a run for Congress in an attempt to unseat GOP U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, a note Passidomo’s campaign team pointed to in response to the Lake County GOP move.

“It’s extremely disappointing to see Anthony Sabatini slandering conservative leaders in Florida in a selfish attempt to advance his own campaign,” said Amanda Bevis, a political spokesperson for Passidomo.

But let’s give Sabatini the benefit of the doubt for a second and just look at this objectively. We’re sure even Sabatini would admit that his messaging is targeting more to the GOP base. That’s what animates him and that’s who he is reaching out to. He certainly must know that moderates and liberals aren’t asking for this stuff.

Are there people who wake up every day and consume nothing but Nick Fuentes and Charlie Kirk content who respond to Sabatini’s constant doomsaying about the latest culture war hysteria post? Sure. But Passidomo is responsible for helping govern the entire state, and her legislation should be aimed at all Floridians, not a narrow slice.

So who has been more successful at their respective aims here? Well, this is one situation where the official response from one camp pretty much said it all.

“Anthony Sabatini lost the support of his own constituents in 2022, the same election cycle that Kathleen Passidomo led the campaign operation that elected the largest Senate Republican supermajority in more than a decade,” Bevis added.

Yes, that’s right. Sabatini is running for Congress this cycle because he lost a race for an entirely different seat in 2022. That was an open race, and he didn’t lose in the General. No, Sabatini couldn’t even emerge from the Republican Primary.

That is, even the base of the party, the target of Sabatini’s kayfabe candidacy, chose to pass on nominating him and selected Cory Mills instead (who went on to win the seat. Sabatini could not even win over the subset of the GOP he was pandering to!

So now he’s back in an entirely different race trying to unseat a man he calls a RINO incumbent. Yet Sabatini, who worships Donald Trump in the same way a 7-year-old worships his favorite athlete, couldn’t even land the former President’s endorsement. Instead, Trump backed Webster.

Sabatini is a failure on every front. Not just in the eyes of humble opinion columnists at Florida Politics, but in the eyes of the very voters this schtick is supposed to appeal to.

Passidomo, meanwhile, helped generate a Senate supermajority for the GOP in 2022 amid one of the best cycles the party has ever had. We are quite confident she has a better pulse on what it takes to make Republicans in the state successful. Maybe after Sabatini gets rebuked again in August, he’ll finally take the hint. But we doubt it.

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].



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