The Farm Team: Ties to Football Define Some State GOP Rising Stars

Posted July 14, 2008 at 5:27pm

Second in a two-part series

Republicans across the country are grumbling about their wounded brand. But not in Florida.

[IMGCAP(1)]With a popular governor and a massive advantage in the state legislature, Sunshine State Republicans are sitting pretty now and for the foreseeable future.

Helping their cause, local party officials also are grooming the next generation of Republican leaders, who will be tasked with building on their current 16-to-9 House advantage when Florida likely gains two seats when the Congressional map is redrawn after 2010.

“We have an advantage at the state levels because of the leaders we have here,” said David Johnson, the former executive director of the Florida Republican Party and a Tallahassee-based GOP consultant.

In the more immediate future, however, Republicans must defend first-rate challenges this November in the Republican-held districts of Reps. Vern Buchanan, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, Tom Feeney and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Johnson said the coming months could offer the first big GOP promotion in Florida this cycle: former state legislator and Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp (R). Popular Gov. Charlie Crist (R) is on presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) vice presidential short list, and his No. 2 would serve out his term if the McCain-Crist ticket took the White House in November.

“Though he is a strong conservative, his leadership style is similar to Gov. Crist’s with regard to reaching across the aisle to address the state’s major issues,” a Florida Republican insider told Roll Call. “With both legislative and executive experience, he is a great candidate for Congress, Senate or governor.”

But should Crist stay in Tallahassee, Johnson said, Kottkamp, who is 47, has “the challenge of carving his own niche.” Crist undoubtedly recognizes this, assigning his deputy high-profile responsibilities in state government. With Crist, Kottkamp is a co-chairman at Space Florida, which may add to his already promising profile in a likely reapportioned southwestern Florida Congressional district, his home base.

“That’s going to be an opportunity to work with NASA and work with Congress and try to maintain some strong level of funding for the space program down here,” Johnson said.

Incoming state Senate President Jeff Atwater (R) also is expected to eventually make a run for a Palm Beach-area House seat or for governor during the next few cycles. A legendary fundraiser, this cycle Atwater is expected to collect 5,000 $500 checks, the maximum dollar amount allowed under state campaign finance law.

“He’s got support from independents, Democrats and Republicans — a key to campaign success in Florida,” a Florida Republican operative said.

Expected to assume the state Senate presidency in 2010, state Sen. Mike Haridopolos (R) is another likely post-Census House candidate. Rumored as a possible candidate earlier this year in retiring Rep. Dave Weldon’s (R) Central Florida district, Haridopolos stepped aside for state Sen. Bill Posey (R) — but not for lack of ambition.

State Rep. Dean Cannon (R), likely the next state Speaker, and 2008 state Senate candidate Andy Gardiner (R), now a state House Member, also are expected to make 2012 runs for Congress in Central Florida in districts now represented by favorite Democrat targets Feeney and Rep. Ric Keller (R). Johnson said the area’s composition provides a good proving ground for potential Senate and gubernatorial candidates.

“Central Florida has a history of [cultivating] statewide leaders,” Johnson said. “They understand the basic necessities of a large urban area, but they also know the pull of the agricultural and tourism industries that are around the Orlando area.”

And like many Southern states, the 2008 GOP slate in Florida wouldn’t be complete without former gridiron greats on the ballot. Former Florida State University standout Peter Boulware, who later played defense for the Baltimore Ravens, shows early promise in his first state House run.

“If he wins this seat — and he has a chance — Boulware will no doubt quickly rise through the ranks,” a Florida Republican insider told Roll Call.

Boulware is expected to eventually run in Rep. Allen Boyd’s (D) potentially competitive district, which could open if Boyd retires or runs statewide during the next few cycles.

State Rep. Will Weatherford (R), too, is said to have designs on higher office. But his fate perhaps may hinge on how well his brother, Florida State University quarterback Drew Weatherford, does this year.

“The name Weatherford will be showing up on sports pages, and that never hurts,” Johnson said.

The Florida State Seminoles play the Miami Hurricanes in football on Oct. 4.