Florida Senate Race Heats Up Early

Florida Senate Race Heats Up Early

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - August 11, 2011

The race to decide which Republican will have the chance to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida is heating up a full year before GOP voters will cast their ballots.

And on the surface, it looks a little like Charlie Crist vs. Marco Rubio redux. After all, the former governor’s onetime chief of staff, George LeMieux, is vying for the GOP nod, as is former House Majority Leader Adam Hasner. LeMieux was appointed by Crist to replace resigning U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez in 2009, and Hasner was selected by then-House Speaker Rubio in 2007 to lead the party in the state legislature. Many of the dynamics at play in the 2012 Senate race reflect those of 2010, which wound up sending Rubio to Capitol Hill: Tea Party influence, grass-roots politics and anger toward the establishment. But the comparisons aren’t so simple, and there is still time for new faces to emerge and upset the narrative.

Hasner, who served in the state legislature for eight years, is running as a Rubio teammate and is playing by the senator’s playbook, traveling across the state to meet with grass-roots conservatives and Tea Party activists and playing to voters’ disgust with Washington by portraying himself as an outsider. He was one of the earliest supporters of Rubio when the freshman senator was a long-shot candidate and an early critic of Crist, who started out as the heavy favorite to win the GOP Senate nod in 2010. Instead, Rubio surged, forcing Crist to either leave the race or run as an independent. He chose the latter and was immediately labeled a flip-flopper and shunned by the party establishment. Rubio won November’s three-way race (over Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek) by nearly 20 points.

However, while the connection between Hasner and Rubio is strong, Rubio was in many ways an inimitable candidate.

“Rubio has a lot of appeal because of his biography, because of his Cuban background, because of his age, and he has one of those powerful stories, the ethnic story, which of course in Florida is a big story,” says Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida, referring to the senator’s appeal as the son of Cuban immigrants. “Republicans in Florida have been enamored [of] candidates with ethnic backgrounds because they want more diversity in their candidates.”

Many political experts agree that a candidate like Rubio, a party star with potential crossover appeal, doesn’t come around very often, especially in back-to-back election cycles.

“But Adam Hasner was his majority leader,” says Florida GOP strategist Brett Doster. “He was a spokesman for Rubio consistently.”

Sarah Rumpf, an Orlando lawyer who helped organize for Rubio early in his campaign, argues that while Hasner may not be Rubio, he has his own appeal. “There’s only one Marco Rubio, and that’s OK, that’s fine. But Adam Hasner is a tough conservative in his own right. Hasner was Rubio’s teammate.”

Hasner has received significant endorsements from conservative groups like FreedomWorks, Concerned Women for America and American Future Fund and from activists like RedState blog founder Erick Erickson, who called Hasner the candidate with the “best background and most conservative record to run in Florida.” He’s been an avid supporter of House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan and was among the first candidates to sign the “Cut, Cap and Balance” pledge, which calls for passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment. He has also garnered support form several Jeb Bush and Rubio financiers.

Recently, however, LeMieux has been attacking Hasner as a fake conservative with a “masquerade ball” of a record. Hasner, for example, supported a budget bill that included a cigarette tax increase and other revenue enhancements (Rubio supported it too). LeMieux also went after Hasner for requesting $92.2 million in earmarks. A report by PolitiFact found that Hasner had requested the funds -- called Community Budget Issue Requests in Florida, a practice that came to an end in 2009 -- over a six-year period and that over a hundred lawmakers made higher requests.

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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