Jacksonville Republican Paul Renner could be on the cusp of winning an intra-party contest to determine who will serve as House Speaker beginning in 2022.
The first-term state Representative currently commands a majority of his 26 colleague’s votes, after Melbourne’s Randy Fine put aside his own bid to be Speaker on Friday and decided to take on the role of kingmaker.
“If the race is over, we should wrap it up for the betterment and unity of our class,” Fine told FloridaPolitics.com.
Fine is now likely to support Renner when the House GOP freshman caucus convenes June 30 to select a leader.
To reach the conclusion about the state of the race, FloridaPolitics.com interviewed no less than 18 members of the freshman class, as well as reviewed a cache of member-to-member emails and text messages provided to the media organization by several different members.
Supporters of Jamie Grant, Renner’s chief rival for the Speaker’s post, dispute this count and contend that neither candidate has the support of a majority of the class. They add that Grant actually has more definitive votes in his pocket than Renner.
FP readily admits that this is but a snapshot of the current state of the race. Members have nearly two weeks to change their minds. And current House leadership, said to be partial to Grant, could intervene in an attempt to persuade members to back the Tampa Republican.
The GOP has a commanding majority in the Florida House, so whoever among the freshman class emerges as its leader is likely to become Speaker, beginning in 2022.
Whether the race is definitely decided or still up in the air, it is a remarkable turnaround for Renner who, only six weeks ago, was “on the ropes,” according to a report by POLITICO Florida.
In April, Renner called a meeting that was attended by about 15 members of the 27-member freshman GOP class. During the meeting, Renner reportedly addressed his colleagues about his interest in the Speaker’s race, which had lost some momentum since some of his backers lost their primaries in August.
But since then, Renner has rallied and Grant’s efforts have stalled, despite the fact that one of Grant’s chief competitors for what is described as the “anti-Renner” bloc, Frank White, declared he was not interested in becoming Speaker.
Byron Donalds and Erin Grall have also declared they are running for the position, but neither is expected to garner enough support to make it past the early rounds of balloting scheduled to occur when the class is scheduled to meet in Central Florida.
Based on FloridaPolitics.com’s own whip count, Renner has the definitive support of Chuck Clemons, Joe Gruters, Don Hahnfeldt, Sam Killebrew, Tom Leek, Stan McClain, Bobby Payne, himself, Rick Roth, and Clay Yarborough (10 votes).
Grant can count on Cord Byrd, himself, Michael Grant, Amber Mariano, Ralph Massullo, Alex Miller, Jackie Toledo, Frank White, and Jayer Williamson (9 votes).
Fine’s support gives Renner 11 votes.
Jason Fischer says he will back Renner, making it 12.
Both sides also concede Bob Rommel is in Renner’s column. That’s 13 very likely votes for Renner.
In addition to his solid 9, Grant is counting on the support of Grall once she is eliminated on the first or second ballot.
This leaves Thad Altman, Donalds (after he is eliminated on the first or second ballot), Mel Ponder, and Cyndi Stevenson.
According to sources close to Altman and Fine, Altman will support Renner now that Fine is with the Jacksonville Republican.
Donalds is a complete unknown; one source says Donalds is ideologically aligned with Grant (they also point out that Grant’s patron, Speaker Richard Corcoran, recently appointed Donalds’ wife, Erika, to the Constitution Revision Commission), while another says there is no way that Donalds can vote for Grant after “Text-gate.”
In April, state Rep. Alex Miller sent a text to Gruters that essentially said the race was narrowing to a choice between Massullo and Grant.
Gruters alerted Renner to the text, which ultimately led to that April meeting to discuss his candidacy. Supporters of Renner believed her text might have violated new GOP rules, which prohibit soliciting support for a leadership contender. At the time, she said what she wrote did not violate the rules.
Ponder is thought to be with Grant because the three members from Northwest Florida —Ponder, White and Williamson — are thought to be moving together (Williamson even said as much) but the District 4 representative has told both Grant and Renner that has not reached a final decision. Neither camp is counting on his vote because they do not want to spook him to the other side.
The final vote of the four, Stevenson, has been the most mercurial, but sources close to both Fischer and Stevenson insist they are a package deal, and Fischer is definitely for Renner. A handful of members tell FloridaPolitics.com that they have received calls from Stevenson that they describe as in favor of Renner.
Handicapping the race this year is slightly more complicated because new rules prohibit members from directly or indirectly soliciting or accepting any “formal or informal pledge of support” prior to June 30. The class also has agreed to vote by secret ballot, doing away with the pledge card system.
Those members who can’t attend the June 30 vote will be able to cast their vote through some type of direct communication to either Rep. Larry Metz or Republican Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues.