The Sunshine State has been a hotbed of presidential campaign activity during the past week. The 2012 hopefuls hashed it out in a widely watched TV debate, made their case to attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference and worked for votes at the Republican Party of Florida’s Presidency 5 straw poll event.
The focus on the presidential contenders has overshadowed the race to take on two-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. That might be because — 11 months before the GOP primary — no true frontrunner has emerged, and no candidate has fired up the party base.
Florida is a huge state — it’s a shorter drive from Washington, D.C., to Montgomery, Ala., than it is from Pensacola to Key West — so it’s not a surprise that with dozens of vastly different constituencies to introduce themselves to, none of the GOP contenders has broken through in a substantial way.
In a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 58 percent of registered Republicans said they didn’t know for whom they would vote if the Senate primary were to be held today.
Former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner and former Sen. George LeMieux lead the pack, but neither excite the base, and some strategists in the Sunshine State see room for someone else.
“I don’t think it’s a slam dunk for anybody yet, and I’m still not convinced that there’s not going to be a late-in-the-game self-funder showing up,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Ana Navarro, who is unaligned with any Senate candidate. “When you have a field where there is an enthusiasm gap and where nobody is emerging as a dominant leader, it makes other people, especially those who have the ability to self fund, take a second look.”
Republican consultant Chris Ingram, who attended the CPAC event in Florida, said the feeling of GOP voters there was a marked lack of excitement with the field.
“The consensus is that nobody is thrilled with any of the candidates,” he said. “But at this point, it’s probably Hasner’s to lose.”
Palm Beach County Republican Party Chairman Sid Dinerstein, who hasn’t endorsed any candidate, agreed that Hasner appeared to be the frontrunner and that the base wasn’t as enthusiastic as it could be for the current crop of Senate hopefuls. But, he said, “short of [former Gov.] Jeb Bush getting into the race — which he isn’t — that probably isn’t going to change.”
Dinerstein joked that the Florida GOP had become spoiled after conservative firebrands Rep. Allen West and Sen. Marco Rubio won in 2010.
“The problem becomes you’re always looking for Marco and Allen — and life is not quite like that,” he said.
Hasner, who polled at just 5 percent in the Quinnipiac survey, was buoyed by a straw poll victory at CPAC, where he finished substantially ahead of LeMieux.
Despite the victory, he was outraised by LeMieux last quarter and has had trouble increasing his standing in polls. Seventeen percent of registered Republicans polled said they would vote for LeMieux in the Quinnipiac survey.
LeMieux emphasized his conservative voting record during his 16-month stint in the Senate in his speech to the CPAC audience.
But despite his polling advantage, the former Senator is saddled with his connections to former Gov. Charlie Crist and former state Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer.
Crist, for whom LeMieux served as chief of staff, is despised by the GOP base for bolting the party in a failed bid to win a Senate seat in 2010.
And Greer faces a trial next year for allegedly stealing money from the state party. Crist, who recommended Greer for the chairmanship, told the St. Petersburg Times that LeMieux “was very instrumental in making that recommendation.”
A person with knowledge of LeMieux’s thinking said the former Senator, who has not been subpoenaed or deposed in the Greer matter, isn’t at all worried about what might come out during the trial. The source also noted that LeMieux was in the private sector when Greer’s alleged wrongdoing began.
But plugged-in strategists across the state suspect there could be trouble ahead for LeMieux as the trial unfolds, if only because of an increased emphasis on his connection to Greer.
“I have no idea what is going to come out in the Greer trial, but it certainly cannot be a good thing for George. The bottom line is: His relationships with Charlie Crist and Jim Greer are big crosses to bear in a Republican primary,” Navarro said. “Whether he can get beyond that is yet to be seen.”
“I think George is French toast,” longtime GOP consultant Roger Stone said. “George LeMieux was the creator, protector and defender of Jim Greer.”
The two other Republicans in the GOP primary — former Ruth’s Chris CEO Craig Miller and retired Army Col. Mike McCalister — are not seen as serious contenders by establishment Republicans. McCalister did, however, come in a close second in the Quinnipiac poll and in the straw poll.
All this leaves Nelson — who is not particularly liked or disliked by Floridians, according to recent polling — plodding along.
“We’re 14 months out, there’s still uncertainty as to who the opponent will be, and the Senator is just going to keep doing his job,” Nelson spokesman Bryan Gulley told Roll Call.
Nelson’s longer-term strategy appears to include distancing himself from ties to the Capitol and emphasizing his ties to Florida, which could help blunt the effect of the potent anti-Washington sentiment in the state.
“Our challenge, like for any candidate running in 2012, is to make sure that the race is about who we are, who Bill Nelson is and his relationship with the state,” said Nelson pollster Dave Beattie. “That’s going to be the No. 1 goal is to make sure [voters] understand who he is as a person, not just what he’s done in Washington.”
Beattie, a respected Democratic pollster based in Florida, said this cycle, “whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, part of what your task is in 2012 is to make sure voters know who you are and what you’re doing for them. Not just that you have been in Washington.”
Roll Call rates the Florida Senate race Leans Democratic.