Campaign Crawlers

Florida Senate Food Fight

A microcosm of the GOP presidential contest -- or, if you prefer, of Charlie Sheen's demise.

By 3.2.12

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TAMPA – Florida's very liberal Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson is too boring and undistinguished to have a nickname. But he should probably be tagged "Lucky."

Nelson is completing his second term in the U.S. Senate thanks to having defeated two weak or damaged Republican candidates. Nelson was able to move from the U.S. House to the Senate in 2000 by defeating former Orlando-area Congressman Bill McCollum, one of the few politicians in Florida as uncharismatic as Nelson himself. In 2006 Nelson was able to easily defeat Katherine Harris, a radioactive candidate who carried more baggage to the polls than your average 747 hauls.

Nelson is up again this year and by all rights should be vulnerable. He's voted with President Obama roughly 98 percent of the time, including for such pathologies as Obamacare, cap and trade, and the stimulus slush fund, which are political indigestibles in Florida. In fact, Nelson has voted for just about every liberal phantasm to come down the pike in his nearly 18 years in Washington. Whichever Republican wins the Senate nomination will be well to Nelson's right, and should be more appealing than Nelson in center-right Florida.

But for now there's a problem on the right. The main Republican candidates, Congressman Connie Mack IV, who represents the Fort Myers area, and former U.S. Senator George LeMieux, a South Florida attorney, are engaging in the same kind of mutually assured destruction campaigns that the Republican presidential candidates are mired in.   

Some of the things Mack and LeMieux are calling each other should be reserved for after the kids go to bed. Each candidate is essentially charging that the other is unfit for public office. If a majority of Florida voters decide they're both right, it could hurt the chances of the Republicans picking up a Senate seat and moving the ideological center of that body a bit to the right.

Most of the outfits who rate these things called the race "leans Democrat" until Mack hopped into the race a couple of months back. Then the race went to "tossup" as Mack benefits from a well-known and well-liked Florida political name. His father, Connie Mack III, represented Florida in the U.S. Senate for 12 years and is still popular. After the food fight began, and after many Republican voters realized it wasn't the former Senator Mack in the race, things are back to "leans Democrat."

Mack the former senator not only compiled a solid conservative record in his House years and his two Senate terms but has always been personally the straightest of straight arrows. On the available evidence Mack IV does not appear to be a chip off the old block in the latter regard..

Mack IV has a fiscally conservative voting record in the House and has some ideas on reducing the federal budget that deserve attention. But his personal budget has been an issue. He's had financial problems. His pre-politics work history is undistinguished and his personal life a bit rocky, including four bar fights and road rage incidents that involved the police. It's these items that have led LeMieux to call Mack "the Charlie Sheen of Florida politics." Ouch.  

By way of response to all this, Mack IV has revised and extended George W. Bush's reasonable explanation of his early and boozy frat boy excesses, to wit: "When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish." But during Mack's bar fight career, from which he retired with a record of 0-2, Mack had a few more years on him than W had when collecting a DUI ticket in Kennebunkport and throwing up on his college dates. If Mack IV is the eventual Republican candidate, Florida Democrats will find this biography as appealing a target as LeMieux does now.

LeMieux doesn't have a gaudy youth and young adulthood to explain away. His cross to bear is Charlie Crist, a villain to Florida's conservative Republican base. LeMieux was chief of staff and political quarterback for Crist, Florida's former RINO governor who drifted left while LeMieux worked for him. To howls of protests about cronyism, Crist appointed LeMieux to a U.S. Senate seat after Senator Mel Martinez resigned with 16 months left on his term.

The idea, at least Crist's idea, was that LeMieux would be a seat-warmer until Crist himself could win that Senate seat in 2010. Of course Crist didn't even stay in the Republican Party for the duration of the 2010 race. When it became clear he could not out-conservative his main opponent, former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, Crist decided to run as an independent from the left but still had his butt handed to him by 20 points.

   When Crist left the Republican Party LeMieux endorsed Rubio and made a complete political break with Crist. During his Senate months, LeMieux compiled a conservative record while his ex-boss was steaming left at flank speed. When opponents try to tie LeMieux to Crist he points to his own conservative record and to his current Crist-free life. He says that he was just hired help with Crist and that Crist should bear the responsibility for policy. The Mack camp is having none of this, claiming LeMieux was the architect of Crist's liberal policies, including Crist's attempt to impose a carbon cap and trade system on Florida. (And they really don't like the Charlie Sheen business -- who would?)

While LeMieux is working to put distance between himself and Crist, Nelson is trying to separate himself from Obama, whose approval ratings in Florida have been under water for most of the last two years. Nelson didn't join Mickey and Goofy in greeting the president when Obama made a recent speech at Orlando's Disney World. And he was critical of the president's attempt to oblige Catholic institutions to provide free birth control and near abortion procedures in their employee's health plans. Those paying attention are entitled to wonder at this one, as Nelson voted for Obamacare, which set up the obligation in the first place. Sure enough, yesterday he joined 50 other senators to defeat the religious-freedom amendment that would have overturned the Obama mandate.

So there it is. Florida Republicans face the challenge of choosing a Senate candidate in August, and then selling that candidate, who by this time will have been repeatedly and severely bashed for months. They'll have to run a competent campaign against a liberal who will have Florida's left-stream media on his side. Perhaps Florida Republicans will be able to do this. Or perhaps "Lucky" Nelson will bob and weave his way back to Washington for six more liberal years.

(Above photo of Connie Mack IV is by Gage Skidmore)

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.