Fant, Renner state House race has been ugly and expensive

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  • | 12:00 p.m. August 22, 2014
Jay Fant
Jay Fant
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When it comes to the issues facing voters in 2014, there’s not much disagreement between Jay Fant and Paul Renner.

Both Fant and Renner — the two Republican candidates hoping to replace outgoing state Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville — support efforts to expand the city’s port.

Both oppose the expansion of Medicaid, or pretty much anything the state could do to implement President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law, and blast what they see as the federal government’s growing encroachment into the lives of Floridians.

But that general agreement hasn’t stopped the two from waging a costly and at times fierce battle in House District 15, where Davis is vacating his seat after taking a job as president of the JAX Chamber.

The two have already spent more than $546,000 on Tuesday’s primary, which will act as a de facto general election. (There are two write-in candidates on the November ballot, but no Democrats.)

And in a district that Gov. Rick Scott won by almost 17 percentage points four years ago, the candidates are both trying to cast themselves as candidates who can appeal to Tea Party and conservative activists.

Fant, who had raised almost $217,000 as of Aug. 8 and loaned his campaign almost $215,000, touts his work in the private sector. His family for years owned First Guaranty Bank & Trust Company before it was forced to close in the wake of the economic meltdown, when Fant was running the bank. He now owns a company that manages lawyers, accountants and investment managers for clients.

The business experience would be helpful in Tallahassee, Fant said. “We don’t need another lawyer in that town,” he said.

Renner, a business lawyer, former prosecutor and Navy veteran, had raised more than $287,000 as of Aug. 8. He said he’s the better leader between the two.

Republican officials and interest groups have also jumped in, with Davis, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, Republican U.S. Ron DeSantis and Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford throwing their support behind Renner. JAXBIZ, the political arm of JAX Chamber, has also backed Renner.

Fant, meanwhile, has drawn the support of the National Federation of Independent Business, Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, and a list of Tea Party activists, including Billie Tucker, one of the founders of the First Coast Tea Party.

Fant paints the race as a prototypical clash between the establishment and conservative activists. “Give the other guy credit: He’s got the old guard lined up,” Fant said.

But Renner disputes that view of the race, pointing out that he won a straw poll held last month by the First Coast Tea Party. (Fant said his campaign doesn’t work straw polls.) Renner doesn’t dispute that he draws establishment backing as well, but points to that as evidence of his broad-based support.

The candidates have recently battled over a direct-mail piece sent out by a third-party group dealing with Fant’s role at First Guaranty.

Fant’s campaign lashed out at Renner, saying the attack violated a clean-campaign agreement the two have signed.

In an interview, Fant said negatives ads are “inappropriate for a race that covers several neighborhoods, when you add it all up.” He also said the attack was false.

Renner, though, said he’s comfortable that the ad was accurate based on conversations he’s had with those affected by the closing of the bank. He also said that Fant was in the wrong for accusing his campaign of being behind the mailer, though a report on BizPac Review, a conservative website, tied the mail piece to the Florida Medical Association, which has a lobbyist who also consults for Renner’s campaign.

“Unfortunately, the (Fant) response was a violation of the agreement itself,” Renner said.