Jack Latvala — a powerful, sometimes surly state senator seen as a moderate Republican voice — entered the race for Florida governor Wednesday, taking on a better-known, more conservative and better-funded primary opponent Adam Putnam for the GOP nomination to replace Gov. Rick Scott.
Latvala publicly announced his candidacy at a fire station in a Hialeah, a Hispanic-majority city that borders Miami. In the crowd were groups of senior citizens, police officers and state employee union members. He also was joined by his son Chris, who is a state representative. He later planned to stop at a Tampa Bay-area aquarium in his hometown of Clearwater before ending the tour at a Panama City marina.
Latvala is considered a moderate Republican and told the group he is proud to have friends on both sides of the political aisle.
Republican challenger Putnam is the incumbent agriculture commissioner. Democrats seeking the seat Scott must leave due to term limits include former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, Orlando-area businessman Chris King and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.
Leading up to his announcement, Latvala has spent time talking about the need to make sure rural Florida is also benefiting from the state's economic rebound, and he's spoken out about the need to treat opioid abuse as a crisis.
Latvala, 65, has served two stints in the Florida Senate, the first from 1994 to 2002, when he left because of term limits. He returned to the Senate in 2010 and will again be term-limited next year. He is the current Senate budget chairman and has previously led the chamber's efforts to tighten ethics in state government and require political candidates to be more transparent about fundraising and campaign spending.
"He fights very hard for the issues he cares about, and sometimes that puts him at odds with some fellow party members, but he cares passionately," said Evan Power, chairman of the Leon County GOP.
He's not afraid to buck his party's leadership and has taken more moderate views on issues such as immigration. He helped fight back an effort to change the state's pension system that was supported by top Republicans and opposed by state workers, and helped kill a bill that would have opened Florida to fracking, an effort that was supported by many in the GOP.
But he will be entering the race as an underdog to Putnam, 43, who first ran for office 22 years ago and has seemingly spent his entire adult life building toward a run for governor.
"Commissioner Putnam has positioned himself well for this race and he's been working for it, and I think he has the infrastructure at the early end to have that place as the front-runner," said Power, whose group hosted Putnam Tuesday night.
Putnam was asked Tuesday night about Latvala's entry into the race, and he chose not to discuss the new challenger.
"I'm focused on the race that I'm running. If you ain't the lead dog in the fight, the view never changes," Putnam said. "I'm just going to be working grass roots, pig-pullings and fish fries from Key West to Chumukla."
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is also considering running for governor, wouldn't say a word when asked about Latvala getting in the race, simply shaking his head "no" as the Leon County GOP barbecue wrapped up
Latvala, however, hasn't been shy about poking Putnam, using Twitter to jab him even before submitting paperwork to get in the race last week.
After Putnam attended a Possum Festival, an annual event in a small Panhandle town that's popular with politicians, Latvala tweeted, "While there will be a time to pose with possums, I am more focused on jobs in NW FL."
And when Putnam said he was a proud "sellout" to the National Rifle Association, Latvala tweeted a political cartoon mocking Putnam, adding his own message, "I will never sell out to anyone, anytime."