Even without major statewide or congressional elections scheduled in 2013, the new year promises to be anything but dull in Florida politics.
All eyes will be on Gov. Rick Scott as he readies to run for a second term. The governor continues to sink in the polls, remaining upside down in almost every survey. Nevertheless, he can point to a dropping unemployment rate as proof that his policies are working. And though he doesn't want to, he remains able to rely on his personal fortune for campaign funds. Despite the south-of-the-border poll numbers, Scott shouldn't be written off as he looks for a second term.
Scott has to seal up his Republican base in 2013. In 2010, 54 percent of Republican primary voters backed Scotts rivals and a Quinnipiac University poll released in December showed that 53 percent of Republicans would not mind seeing Scott face a primary in 2014. Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry has already signaled that he intends to use his organization to promote Scotts reelection. But rumors persist that other Republicans -- namely state CFO Jeff Atwater, but other names have also been whispered -- could be looking at taking Scott on in a primary. While Atwater will probably pass on challenging the governor, other Republicans might consider a primary challenge to an unpopular governor is worth a gamble.
On the Democratic side, former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is looking at getting his old job back, will try to rally Democrats to his standard and assure suspicious liberals that they can trust him in spite of his previous conservative positions and Republican affiliation. How leading Democrats respond to Crist in 2013 will help shape how the former governor does in 2014. Look for Republicans to continue to pound Crist and be joined by unlikely allies -- liberal Democrats who remain wary of the former governor. Nan Rich and other liberal Democrats looking at jumping into the race will certainly fire everything they have at Crist.
While a potential matchup between Scott and Crist will draw plenty of national attention, the governor is not the only Cabinet official looking for another term in 2014. Atwater could entice a Democratic opponent and rumors are buzzing that Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, will challenge him in 2014. House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, is sending up trial balloons that he could challenge Attorney General Pam Bondi. Waldman and Thurston will face challenges in 2013 as they try to balance their duties in Tallahassee with potential 2014 campaigns. This is especially true for Thurston, who is already coping with a race between three Democrats who want his position after the 2014 elections.
With 15 new senators and more than 40 new members of the House, 2013 should be interesting in the Legislature. Though they have smaller majorities in both chambers, the Republican leadership should have the votes they need, especially as two of the more divisive issues from last year -- redistricting and expanded casino gambling -- are off the table in 2013. With Scott pushing for more STEM education and reform in higher education, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, should be able to keep Republicans together. Other issues, including another push for legal and tort reform, could be trickier.
While Thurston will have his hands full as three Democrats duke it out to be the next House leader, Gaetz could also be presiding over a leadership fight. Sen. Jack Latvalla, R-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, are jockeying for position to see who will lead the Senate after the 2016 elections. After the 2012 election cycle and his role in helping doom the parent trigger in 2012, Latvalla is an underdog. Look for Negron to try to seal things up in 2013.
Just as it had been in most recent years, the House should be more reliable for conservatives than the Senate in 2013. Despite Chris Dorworth, who was penciled in to be speaker after the 2014 elections, losing in November, House Republicans quickly rallied behind Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, to be incoming speaker. Leadership fights shouldnt be a major factor in the House in 2013 for the Republican majority.
The Legislature has plenty to keep it busy -- implementing the federal health-care law, education, tort and legal reform -- but after it adjourns at the end of April, all eyes will turn toward the 2014 elections. As he prepares to run for a second term, Rick Scott should remain at the center of Florida politics in 2013.
Freelance political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.