Campaign Crawlers

An Opportunity Wasted?

Incumbent Bill Nelson may have an easy time of it next year if Republicans don't get over their lethargy in Florida's U.S. Senate race.

By 11.4.11

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TAMPA -- You just can't have a Marco Rubio in every election cycle. That's too bad for conservatives.

Florida's Republican junior U.S. Senator, Rubio is the articulate conservative who came from obscurity to defeat Florida's sitting governor and a no-name Democrat for the Senate seat in 2010. When Rubio entered the race in the spring of 2009 the political "experts" and the Republican establishment first yawned, then said he had no chance. The entire Republican establishment went kissy-kissy all over the rudderless political wind-sock, Charlie Crist, who didn't even remain a Republican until Election Day. Rubio won by 20 points. He's in the U.S. Senate while Crist is a now pitch-man for a large personal injury law firm. At least Crist finally found his métier.

Hardly oriented yet to the Senate office buildings, rookie Rubio is on every Republican's short list for the VP spot on next year's ticket. Though he may also be on the even shorter list of people who've said they don't want to be vice president and really mean it.

Rubio is smart enough, informed on all the issues enough, clear enough in his conservative view of the world, and forceful enough in his willingness to engage in the name of those convictions, that he has a real prospect of being at the top of a Republican ticket one day if that party decides to remain conservative. He just doesn't have the genes of a second banana and likely doesn't want to spend the next eight years handing guests their coats after state dinners, going to the funerals of foreign humbugs, and inquiring after the president's health.

This cycle conservatives have a real opportunity to replace a liberal Senate Democrat who has voted with Barack O'Barnum more than 90 percent of the time, including supporting such leftist hustles as cap and trade, Obamacare, and the debt stimulus package of 2009. This would be one Bill Nelson, 69, seeking his third Senate term. The Florida left-stream media insist on referring to Nelson as a "moderate," but this says more about the Florida media than about this transparently liberal Senator who holds countless left-wing positions, and has voted for a host of liberal measures, that a majority of Florida voters just don't fancy.

Nelson, who served in the U.S. House and the Florida Legislature, as well as doing a hitch as Florida's Insurance Commissioner, before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2000, has been in public office since slightly after the Crimean War.

Polls have varied so far, but most show about a third of Florida voters have a favorable opinion of Nelson, about a third unfavorable, another third have no opinion of Nelson or have never heard of him. He's clearly not made much of an impression for a guy who has been in office since before a fair fraction of Florida voters were even born.

Nelson's nickname isn't "Lucky," but it should be. He's held office far more because of what Republicans haven't done, than what he, Nelson, has. What the Republicans haven't done is put up a strong candidate against Nelson. In 2000 Nelson ran against former Congressman Bill McCollum, a smart, decent, conservative, and able man, but one of the few politicians in Florida as charisma-challenged as Nelson. In 2006 Nelson matched up against the politically radioactive Katherine Harris, the former Florida Secretary of State Democrats still accuse of stealing the 2000 Florida presidential vote for George W. Bush, and who put together a short but undistinguished career in the U.S. House before trying to jump to the Senate.

Will Bill Nelson get another batting practice fastball to swing at in 2012? Will he once again not have to pay the price for his liberal career? Events to this point are not encouraging for conservatives.

With the exception of Craig Miller, an Orlando area restaurateur, the gang of five (recently expanded from four) seeking the Republican nomination have spent as much or more time calling their Republican opponents one or more species of a no-account than they have talking down Nelson. The Republican race more and more has the appearance of a circular firing squad.

Realizing that conservative is the preferred flavor among the Republican base this cycle, the candidates are competing mightily with each other for the mantle of the real and true conservative in the race.

Former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner has garnered some support from state and national conservative groups and figures. But opponent George LeMieux, appointed by Crist to serve the final 16 months of Mel Martinez's Senate term, has dug up campaign literature from previous races where Hasner claimed to be a moderate.

Hasner retorts that LeMieux has some esplainin' to do for his career as liberal governor Crist's campaign manager and chief of staff. While LeMieux was Crist's major domo Crist held just about every position known to man on every issue, including some quite liberal stuff like attempting to put Florida under a carbon cap and trade regime and whooping up O'Barnum's trillion dollar stimulus slush fund. Plant City tree farmer and retired Army Reserve and National Guard Colonel Mike McCalister has joined in the chorus against "political insiders" who've caused the mess we're in and who can't get us out of it.

Fort Myers Congressman Connie Mack IV, son of former U.S. Senator Connie Mack III (grandson of Philadelphia Athletics owner and manager for life, Connie Mack), recently jumped into the race, after saying earlier in the year that he wouldn't run because he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Mack's change of heart almost certainly is not because his family has become less attractive over the last few months, but because Florida Republicans have found the Senate field and the campaign to this point unedifying and uninspiring. Though it's not clear what Mack -- who has had some snarky things to say about the Arizona anti-illegal immigrant law, who takes global warming more seriously than he should, and who supported Crist in the 2010 Senate race -- brings to the table that the Republican base wants to hear.

Most of these candidates have been campaigning for months. In center-right Florida, where voters self-identify themselves as conservative over liberal by two to one, there should be some interest in these folks. Not yet. Most polls show Nelson winning against all of them. Invariably "none of the above" is the most favorite candidate in polls of the Republican pack.

If one of these doesn't separate himself from the field and make a solid case for himself, Florida may well be represented in the U.S. Senate for six more years by a mediocre politician well to the left of the state's electorate. And the conservative cause will have failed where it should prosper.

In 2010 Marco Rubio electrified Republican voters. There's a year left before the election, but so far this cycle there has been a power outage on the Republican side. 

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.