Thirty-five years writing about politics, you’d think I’ve seen it all — fake candidates, ballooned egos, questionable claims — but nothing comes close to the pick-n-roll Gov. Ron DeSantis pulled on the voters of Citrus County.
Last week, in a matter of three days:
— DeSantis endorsed Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, in the new Senate District 11 showdown with Rep. Ralph Massullo. In doing so, DeSantis essentially gave Massullo zero chance of winning.
— DeSantis announced that Massullo had decided to give up the Senate race and run instead for re-election to the House. The governor was pleased to give Massullo his full backing.
— Citrus County political types, already focused on a House race WITHOUT Massullo, imploded.
Prior to the governor deciding he knew better than we about who should represent us, Citrus County was looking at two exceptional legislative races.
One is the previously mentioned Senate battle with Massullo and Ingoglia. It would have been nice to see those two political heavyweights discussing the Suncoast Parkway and Florida Turnpike projects.
The other, though, is the one that really hits home. Massullo being back in the House race for reelection throws into disarray campaigns for the frontrunners.
Both former Commissioner Rebecca Bays and J.J. Grow had some semblance of encouragement from Massullo to get into this race. Neither Bays nor Grow would have run against Massullo. They only entered after Massullo announced his Senate intentions, and both are doing well lining up supporters within Citrus County.
Unlike a multi-county Senate district, Massullo’s current House district is all Citrus and pokes into Hernando County. The new district is all of Citrus and into the Dunnellon area of Marion County.
That makes our House candidates much closer to home. I’ve gotten to know all six candidates (five Republicans, one Democrat, excluding Massullo for the moment). We’ve had great conversations.
They should have had a decent chance of providing his or her worth to voters without interference.
So far, everyone’s holding ground. Rumors about folding campaigns are premature. Let’s allow this to breathe a little. That said, here are three possible outcomes (for now I’m focusing on Bays and Grow, the pre-Massullo frontrunners):
— Bays and/or Grow stay in the House primary with Massullo. It’s not out of the realm of reality. Both are off to pretty good starts and seem to have decent people helping to guide their path. I was looking forward to hearing them with the other candidates. I hope I still get that chance.
— Massullo drops from the race altogether. Pretty unlikely. But, boy, this has got to hurt. Dr. Ralph Massullo has a well-earned reputation as a humble man, a man of his word who lives by faith. Politically, he is successful in a non-combative way.
He was really looking forward to that Senate race with Ingoglia and confident of a win. But a contested primary endorsement from Gov. DeSantis is the golden ticket.
It would never come to Massullo’s mind in a million years to mess with another candidate in the Republican primary the way the Republican governor just did with his.
Yet, this is the hand he is suddenly given. What’s he to do — just walk away from that? Don’t count on it.
— Both Bays and Grow eventually drop from the race, backing Massullo over the three other Republican primary candidates. This seems most likely, based on pure politics alone. Just as Ingoglia gets a huge voter popularity boost with the governor’s endorsement, as does Massullo in the House race. Kind of icky how he got it, but there it is.
Face it. While the circumstances are weird, a Massullo re-election is hard to beat on any given day. That’s why neither Bays nor Grow wanted to run against him. If either or both decide to stay in, they know exactly what they’re getting into.
There you have it. As one who believes in the sanctity of the political process, one driven by the will of voters, this whole thing really bugs me.
Citrus County got stuck in the crosshairs of a high-stakes political fight not of our making. That may be business as usual in the Capitol, but in our little neighborhood it’s rather unseemly.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.