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Another GOP Senate Showdown Brewing in Florida

Another GOP Senate Showdown Brewing in Florida

By Erin McPike - December 1, 2010

After witnessing Florida Republican Sen.-elect Marco Rubio's landslide win in this year's open race, about half a dozen rising Republicans already are jockeying to take on Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012 in what the Florida GOP says will be a spirited primary.

Leading the squad is Mike Haridopolos, the new state Senate president, and outgoing Sen. George LeMieux, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to finish former Republican Sen. Mel Martinez's term after he resigned his seat early. In interviews this week, Haridopolos and LeMieux both sounded committed to running and suggested they will make their decisions quickly and jump in early next year - due in large part to the exorbitant costs associated with running a statewide election there.

"I'm pretty close to making a decision," LeMieux said, although he said he wants to finish the lame-duck session before he pivots into a race.

Haridopolos said he's actively pursuing the race but won't make a final decision until he gets through the month, because as a professor at the University of Florida, he has to get through final exams. He also noted that the state Senate is focused on a budget shortfall and overriding some of Crist's vetoes, and, he added, "My kids can't wait till Christmas."

LeMieux, 41, and Haridopolos, 40, are both near-certain candidates, and neither is concerned about the other or the rest of the field. Haridopolos did mention his first call in exploring the race was to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whom Haridopolos said he'd support if he ran. The state senator intimated that Bush signaled him to go for it.

"I never thought there would be so much encouragement to run," he said.

"I was conservative when it wasn't cool to be conservative," Haridopolos added. "I think people are looking for someone like that now."

Former Rep. Dave Weldon approached him in 2007 and said he would leave his position early to create a special election if Haridopolos was interested, but the state senator said the timing was bad for him personally and professionally, as he has young children and was not finished with his efforts to make the state Senate more conservative.

Now that he's succeeded in moving the needle to the right at the state level, Haridopolos would like to do the same at the federal level, he said, noting, "The United States Senate is a moderate to liberal place."

His wife is a physician who he said cried the moment the House passed health care reform in March, and she has since encouraged him to seek the Senate seat. The couple is close to Rubio and his wife, and Haridopolos will court the new senator for support.

Potentially standing in the way for the likely candidate, according to Democrats, is an ethics charge against him for failing to disclose some of his financial interests properly.

Nevertheless, several GOP strategists with backgrounds in Florida politics suggested that the candidate best positioned to recreate the momentum that Rubio rode to victory is Haridopolos. They say he has shown himself to be more conservative than LeMieux, whose close ties to Crist may hurt him with Republicans.

A GOP Senate strategist in Washington noted of the outgoing senator and former chief of staff to Crist, "George will be formidable, but he has a challenging road. I think it is too early to tell how things will shake out."

For his part, LeMieux pressed that he earned the support of conservatives and the tea party movement when he dumped his support for Crist and backed Rubio after the governor left the GOP.

"It was not an easy thing to do for me," he said.

LeMieux seems compelled to run out of a desire to address spending, which he called a top issue.

"From my time in Washington, I've seen that this place is dysfunctional. We're on the precipice of financial disaster," he said.

Pressed on what has surprised him most about serving in the Senate, he continued, "Typical senators who have been around here for decades just keep spending and running up trillions in debt.... They walk around here like it is normal. It's not normal. It's bizarre and it's broken."

A Florida Democratic strategist broke down LeMieux's time in Washington by saying, "He's played pretty good public relations, but he hasn't done much."

LeMieux and his team, however, are promoting four legislative accomplishments of the senator's in his short tenure. Among those are his efforts earlier this year on three parts of the small business bill: His work with Louisiana Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu to get $30 billion in lending into it; his work with Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar on the Export Promotion Act, which bolsters the Department of Commerce in promoting exports; and his Medicare anti-fraud initiative, which adds predictive modeling to Medicare in the Department of Health and Human Services. He also pushes an amendment in financial regulatory reform he authored with Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell that restructured standards of credit worthiness used by national credit ratings agencies.

Other than Haridopolos and LeMieux, potential contenders eyeing the race include GOP Reps. Vern Buchanan, Connie Mack and Tom Rooney; outgoing state House majority leader Adam Hasner; and even thrice-failed New York independent gubernatorial candidate Tom Golisano, who relocated to the Sunshine State last year. Golisano is now a Republican and has personal wealth with which to fund a race; political operatives in the state say after Rick Scott's victory in the gubernatorial election this year, a serious Golisano candidacy is possible. Republicans also anticipate that incoming Florida CFO Jeff Atwater and incoming Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll also may test the waters.

Despite the growing interest in the race among Republicans, Nelson's backers say he is positioned well for a re-election race in two years, but Democratic strategists in and around his team have not said unequivocally that he will run, though they expect that he will.

"Bill Nelson will serve the folks in Florida as long as they're satisfied with the job he does -- and so far, they've said he's doing a pretty darn good job," said Nelson adviser Dan McLaughlin. "Unlike some, Nelson's focused on doing the job he was elected to do, and he isn't looking two years down the road or jockeying for some other post."

Should Nelson choose not to run, insiders expect possible Democratic contenders could be Crist, who lost an independent bid for Senate this year, and Democrats Kendrick Meek and Alex Sink, who lost the Senate and governor's race this year, respectively.

Nelson is in the best financial shape.

As of a Sept. 30, 2010, filing with the FEC, the two-term senator had $2.9 million in his campaign account and will begin the race far ahead of any potential opponents.

Haridopolos, Hasner and LeMieux would start from scratch, but Haridopolos pointed out that he helped pull $13 million together for state Senate campaigns, and operatives say Hasner has a national Jewish fundraising base that could boost his prospects.

As of mid-October this year, Mack's war chest stood at about $536,000, compared to about $518,000 for Rooney and $1.2 million for Buchanan. Buchanan is personally wealthy and could fund his own race.

Mack's team did not respond to an inquiry about the race, but Florida Republican operatives said he has been actively exploring a bid and is laying groundwork.

An ally of the Mack's noted that he can wait a bit longer than the rest of the field because his name recognition is high around the state, as his father held the Senate seat in the ‘90s. The ally, a veteran of Florida GOP politics, wondered whether Mack ultimately would risk an expanding portfolio in the House for a tough primary when he may get attacked for being too moderate.

To that end, a Florida Democrat said that how Mack approached the immigration issue by condemning the new Arizona law was "almost commendable."

Although Buchanan and Rooney have not closed the door on the race and still may consider it, they seem far less inclined than the others to enter it. One state GOP operative said that while Rooney may have a long future in elective office in the state, he's unlikely to run for higher office in the coming cycle.

In a statement provided to RealClearPolitics, Rooney said, "I'm completely focused on serving the people of Florida's 16th district in the House of Representatives. We need to roll back the failed policies of the last two years, and I'm going to be fighting in the House to lower taxes, make government smaller and more accountable, and strengthen our national defense."

And a spokeswoman for Buchanan said, "The congressman is focused exclusively on a pro-jobs agenda with the new Republican majority in the House." She added that any other race is "the last thing on his mind."

 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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