By Hastings Wyman –
The Sunshine State’s presidential primaries on March 15 are likely to be the focus of political watchers over the next few weeks, but as the August 30 state primaries draw closer, the contest for the US Senate vacancy created by Marco Rubio’s decision to run for president will take the spotlight.
The Republicans hope to hold the seat and already have several well-financed contenders, with the possibility of more entrants before the June 20-24 filing period. Democrats count this as one of five states where they have a good shot a flipping the seat, and the party’s Big Dogs are rallying around a potential nominee. “Outside money will be pouring in,” notes Susan MacManus, professor of political science at South Florida University.
On the Republican side, freshman US Rep. David Jolly (R) is the early favorite, based on his first place in several polls, but nearly half of the GOP electorate is still undecided. Jolly hails from the Tampa area, which accounts for roughly one-fourth of the state’s electorate. Jolly is conservative, but not in the Trump/Cruz/Carson mold.
Second-term US Rep. Ron DeSantis (R) has a high profile among the GOP’s right wing. He trails in the polls so far, but is winning the money race, raking in campaign contributions and endorsements from such groups as the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R) trails in money and the polls, but he has been endorsed by 41 state legislators as well as by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (R). Although Lopez-Cantera is the governor’s number two guy, “Scott hasn’t given him much exposure,” says MacManus.
Todd Wilcox is a businessman and new to running for office. His fundraising has been adequate when you include the half-million he lent his campaign. A defense contractor, military veteran and former CIA agent, Wilcox is based in the vote-heavy Orlando area. He is wealthy, but probably not a self-funder; if he can raise the money, he could become a significant force in the GOP primary.
In an interview with Florida Politics, Wilcox said that he likes that he is the only non-elected official in the race, and believes that resonates with Florida Republicans. He’s also hewing closely to conservative views on issues, calling for ending the “anchor baby” path to citizenship, though he has expressed sympathy for children of illegal immigrants raised in this country. And he has called Obama’s Affordable Care Act “a wet blanket on the back of job creators.”
“DeSantis is the man to beat,” opines Barney Bishop, a Tallahassee-based political analyst. “Jolly is too much in the middle. Carlos Lopez-Cantera is sharp and well-liked in Miami,” where he served in local office before becoming lieutenant governor, “but
lieutenant governors have a terrible record” of winning higher office. Bishop calls Wilcox “the sleeper,” adding that he is “very sharp on national security issues.”
The latest poll of Republicans, taken in mid-January by Florida Atlantic University, College of Business, showed Jolly with 28%, followed by DeSantis and Lopez-Cantera with 8% each; 57% were undecided. Wilcox was not included in the survey, but in a mid-December survey, taken by St. Pete Polls, Wilcox had 8% to Jolly’s 21%, DeSantis’ 18%, and Lopez-Cantera’s 10%.
Republican campaign finances as of September 30, 2015
Raised On hand
DeSantis $2,141,000 $2,457,000
Jolly $879,000 $658,000
Lopez-Cantera $462,000 $380,000
Wilcox $759,000 $684,000
Considering that there are nearly five months before the filing deadline, the list of candidates may not be complete. At least two well-to-do Republicans have been cited in the Florida media as potential Senate candidates.
The first is Carlos Beruff, a Manatee developer who is considering the race, and according to media reports, has already begun putting a campaign team together. He may commit as much as $5 million to his campaign. Beruff is a fixture in the business and political establishments of Southwest Florida. A son of Cuban immigrants, Beruff built his home-building business, Medallion Home, into one of the region’s largest. He is close to Gov. Rick Scott (R), who appointed him to the Southwest Florida Water Management District and to Scott’s Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding. On the downside, some of the policies he has pushed have been controversial.
The other is Francis Rooney, the former US Ambassador to the Vatican, who is also impressively wealthy. But despite a piece about him in Florida Politics that praised his prospects, Rooney told the web publication that he is focused on electing Jeb Bush president and that a Senate race is “way out of consideration.” His company, Rooney Holdings Inc. has given more than $2 million to Right to Rise, the committee backing Bush’s candidacy.
On the Democratic side, second-term US Rep. Patrick Murphy has a boat-load of support from elected officials in and out of Florida, including eleven members of Congress, 31 state legislators, former Gov. Charlie Crist and former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink. Most important, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which rarely chooses sides in primaries, has endorsed him, making clear which candidate the party’s top insiders believe can win the seat for the Democrats.
Bishop forecasts a Murphy win in the primary and believes he will be the odds-on favorite in the General Election. “He’s the right guy at the right time. He’s not a far-left liberal and that will put him in good stead with Florida voters … He doesn’t always stick
with Democratic dogma.” But Murphy’s moderation is a two-edged sword. Some of Murphy’s problems among Democratic voters stem from what MacManus dubs “his former life as a Republican.”
Alan Grayson, an acerbic firebrand on the Democratic left, has received little encouragement from his fellow Democratic officeholders, winning so far only the endorsement of the Florida Chapter of Progressive Democrats of America. But he led in the latest opinion poll of Democrats in the mid-January Florida Atlantic University poll. Grayson had 27% and Murphy 20%, but 53% were undecided. Grayson trails in fundraising, but he is personally wealthy.
Democratic campaign finances as of September 30, 2015
Raised On hand
Murphy $4,205,000 $3,477,000
Grayson $1,154,000 $259,000
An experienced participant in Florida campaigns points out that “none of the candidates, Republican or Democrat, is a longtime public figure,” which helps explain why others are considering a Senate bid. MacManus agrees, adding, that “too many people have never heard of any of the candidates. They are regional candidates, known in their home area.”
But if the populist turmoil and fervor that have characterized the presidential contests in both parties hold sway in August, they could pump up interest in the Senate contest. At this point, DeSantis would likely benefit from the Trump phenomenon, while Grayson should attract support from Sanders’ supporters.