Florida GOP Primaries Will Shape Next Year’s Conference

Five of the state's 8 open seats are safe for Republicans

Mary Thomas, Republican candidate for Florida's 2nd District, has the support of the House Freedom Fund. (JM Rieger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Mary Thomas, Republican candidate for Florida's 2nd District, has the support of the House Freedom Fund. (JM Rieger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 30, 2016 at 5:10am

With a third of Florida’s delegation retiring at the end of this term, open-seat races dot the Sunshine State’s redistricted congressional map.

Five of the open eight House seats are in Safe Republican districts, which means the winners of Tuesday’s primaries will likely be the next members of Congress.

And with so many new Republican faces coming to Congress, these Florida primaries will go a long way toward shaping the balance of power between the establishment and the House Freedom Caucus (and its sympathizers) in next year’s GOP conference. 

19th District

One current Florida member of the Freedom Caucus, 19th District Rep. Curt Clawson, is retiring. But should the big-spending Francis Rooney win Tuesday’s GOP primary, the Freedom Caucus will almost surely lose its grip in this South Florida seat. 

Rooney (no relation to 17th District Rep. Tom Rooney) is a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and a major GOP fundraiser in Florida politics. His construction company built the George W. Bush presidential library, and he contributed to the presidential bids of both former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. 

In mid-August, an automated survey from the polling firm affiliated with Rooney’s consultants gave him a 45 percent to 29 percent edge over former House Budget Committee staffer Chauncey Goss, now a member of the Sanibel City Council. Speaker Paul D. Ryan endorsed Goss when he ran for Congress in 2012, but is staying neutral this time around. Goss is the son of former congressman and CIA director Porter Goss.

The Freedom Caucus’ one shot in this primary could be retired Secret Service agent Dan Bongino. With support from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, he’s the candidate most likely to join the caucus’ ranks.

He’s lost two previous races in another state — Maryland’s 6th District in 2014 and Maryland Senate in 2012. And after a recent highly publicized meltdown on the phone with a reporter, Bongino has plenty of liabilities. He came in third, with 15 percent of the vote, in the Remington Research poll

1st District

Elsewhere in the state, conservatives have their eyes on a 26-year-old candidate in Florida’s 1st District. Amash, Bongino, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund have gotten behind attorney Rebekah Bydlak. A PAC started by failed North Carolina candidate Greg Brannon heralded her as one of the “grass-roots conservatives” the establishment opposes.

But Bydlak stands little chance against state Rep. Matt Gaetz, who has been on the air more frequently and enjoys diverse support from Mike Huckabee’s PAC as well as the moderate, pro-business Republican Main Street Partnership. 

2nd District

The House Freedom Caucus’ best pickup opportunity may be in the state’s 2nd district, the only Florida district where its political arm — the House Freedom Fund — has backed a candidate.

[Establishment GOP Looks to Arizona, Florida Primaries to Bolster Ranks]

Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio has campaigned with attorney Mary Thomas in the district. This primary has turned into a proxy war between the Freedom Caucus and the GOP establishment, with Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy fundraising for Panama City doctor Neal Dunn. 

Whoever wins the primary, the 2nd District will be a general election gain for Republicans, who lucked out with new district lines that made the seat more favorable to them. Current Rep. Gwen Graham, a Democrat, is leaving the House to explore a gubernatorial bid in 2018.

4th District

Florida’s 4th District, which eight-term Rep. Ander Crenshaw is vacating, is another safe GOP seat. Crenshaw is not a member of the Freedom Caucus, and there’s no clear caucus sympathizer in the race.

Recent polling has given former Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford a significant edge over attorney Hans Tanzler III, the son of a former Jacksonville mayor.

[How Rubio’s Decision Scrambles Florida House Races]

Tanzler has attacked Rutherford as “a liberal” who opposes the NRA, while Rutherford has hit Tanzler for donating to former Gov. Charlie Crist, who’s now a Democrat (and running for Congress in the state’s 13th District).  

[Incumbents Switch Districts to Win Primaries]

11th District

The 11th District is a quasi-open seat because its current representative, Rich Nugent, is retiring. But GOP Rep. Daniel Webster, whose 10th District was made safe for Democrats in redistricting, is now running in the new 11th District, which includes his Lake County home. 

[Webster Presses Nuanced Case for Speaker]

Webster is not a member of the Freedom Caucus, but he ran for speaker last fall as the preferred candidate of the caucus. That wasn’t his first run for the speakership: He also challenged former Speaker John A. Boehner

Moving districts doesn’t always work out for incumbents. In a similar situation in Virginia, 4th District Rep. J. Randy Forbes ran in the neighboring 2nd District when redistricting made his seat safe for the Democrats. He lost — despite running with the backing of current 2nd District Rep. Scott Rigell, who’s retiring.  

In the Florida race, the retiring Nugent is backing his former chief of staff, Justin Gabrelle, in the primary. 

Contact Pathé at simonepathe@rollcall.com  and follow her on Twitter at @sfpathe.