Paul Renner is increasingly the man to beat in the special election being held for the now open Florida House seat Travis Hutson vacated to run for the state Senate.
Renner is an attractive candidate: a Republican leader, a shrewd attorney and a Navy vet. In a House campaign earlier this year, Renner was able to count on the support of some big names including Ron DeSantis and John Thrasher and he should be able to rely on some of them again in his latest campaign. Counting on his network of supporters in Northeast Florida and Tallahassee, Renner should be able to raise money once again.
But Renner ran in Duval County, and Hutson’s old seat is further to the southeast, across I-295 and down I-95 on the other side of the St. Johns River. It’s a far different district than the one Renner ran only a few months ago.
Helping Renner out is the piecemeal opposition forming against his bid. Undermining their chances to beat Renner, his opponents in Flagler County aren’t exactly lining up to take him on. Dave Sullivan from the Flagler County GOP has been active against Renner. The problem is fielding a candidate. Sullivan threw his name out as a possible candidate but now seems more content to stay on the sidelines. Donald O’Brien from the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce filed to run for 2016 before the special election opened up but now he’s thinking about walking it back. Having just run and lost as an independent for Flagler County Commission, Howard Holley will take on Renner in the Republican primary. Conservative Sheamus McNeely has deep ties to the area but remains largely unknown.
Further complicating things is a candidate from St. Johns County. Ron Sanchez is pretty well-known from his time on the St. Johns County Commission but he is coming off a defeat, having lost his seat this year. But Sanchez isn’t well-known outside of his home base.
None of these candidates — with the possible exception of O’Brien who increasingly looks unlikely to fully enter the race — will be able to hang with Renner in the money chase. None of them will be able to call upon the help of the state’s movers and shakers as much as Renner.
To be sure, Renner rolled the dice when he moved out of Jacksonville to run in this special election. There’s still time for a strong candidate to emerge or for Renner’s Republican opponents to unite behind somebody. But right now, Renner has to be the favorite to win the primary in January and claim the seat in April.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.