Campaign Crawlers

A Florida Senate Primer

Folks like Mike Haridopolos are lining up to oust moderate sounding, liberal voting incumbent Bill Nelson.

By 6.22.11

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TAMPA -- The candidates for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in Florida clearly believe red-meat conservatism will be the favored flavor among R primary voters in 2012, as it was in 2010. They're probably correct.

Whether unapologetic conservatism is the key to beating liberal Democratic (pardon the redundancy) incumbent Bill Nelson in the general election is still unclear. In the few polls taken so far, "generic Republican" is competitive against Nelson, while the four actually running don't do so swell. But it's early.

In 2010 former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, now U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, came out of right field to beat the establishment's candidate, formerly popular Florida Charlie Crist, by 20 points. He was the most conservative state-wide victor Florida has seen in several cycles. Three Republicans won cabinet posts in 2010 pushing conservative agendas. The state's U.S. House delegation became more R, a one-sided 19-6 majority now for the GOP. Bite-your-ankles conservative Republican Allen West even defeated a Democratic incumbent in limousine-liberal Palm Beach County.

Republicans eager to strap on Nelson include Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former U.S. Senator George LeMieux, and former Florida House Majority Leader Adam Hasner. Orlando area steak-house restaurateur Craig Miller, oh-for-one in congressional races, says he'll decide soon whether to add his name to the Senate menu. Mike McCalister, a Tea-Party friendly retired Army colonel, has also thrown his hat in, but showed little ability to attract votes or attention in his 2010 race for governor.

Depending on how much 2012 turns out to be like 2010, these candidates are either fighting the last war or telling primary voters what they're eager to hear. So far, not many Floridians are focused on the Senate race or the presidential sweepstakes. In all the polls in both races the most favored candidate now is a guy named "Undecided." This will give way as summer fades to fall and we're looking down the barrel of the Iowa caucuses and the first primaries.

So far Hasner appears to have a lead in the race to be crowned the real and true conservative. In a campaign that mimics Rubio's 2010 race both in ideology and strategy, Hasner is crisscrossing the state highlighting the urgency of cutting federal spending and regulation and following a strong foreign policy based on defending America's security interests. He was the first of the candidates to endorse the Ryan plan for dealing with Medicare.

Just as Rubio's 2010 campaign attracted the support of Florida and national conservative household names, bagging almost all of them well before Election Day, Hasner so far has collected the endorsements of conservative broadcasters Monica Crowley and Mark Levin, Red State's Erick Erickson, and Pass the Balanced Budget Amendment Chairman Ken Blackwell.

LeMieux is angling to get back to Washington. He was appointed by former Florida Governor Charlie Crist to serve the last 16 months of the term of Mel Martinez, who resigned from his Senate seat in August 2009. During LeMieux's short time in Washington he compiled what the ideological rating agencies deem to be a conservative voting record. In his campaign so far LeMieux has criticized Obama and Nelson for incontinent federal spending and for socialist overreaches such as Obamacare. When Crist broke wide left and became an independent during the 2010 Senate race, LeMieux made a clean and complete break with Crist and endorsed Rubio. 

But it won't be easy for LeMieux to rid himself of the Ghost of Charlies Past. LeMieux says he rejects the leftist stands Crist took in the Senate race and before, including Crist's 2007 attempt to saddle Florida with its own cap and trade system. But his opponents claim that LeMieux, who was Crist's chief of staff for years, was in fact the architect of these liberal positions.

To the extent that 2012 is still a Tea Party year, and if it's still an advantage to be an outsider, LeMieux will have to deal with the image of a Washington insider. Thursday a clutch of U.S. Senators, including John McCain of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Pat Roberts of Kansas are throwing a fund-raiser at The Monocle in Washington for LeMieux. Another sponsor of the event is Pete Rummel, finance chairman of Bob "Bob" Dole's direction-less 1996 presidential campaign. Can you get any more establishment than this?

Haridopolos has compiled a mostly conservative record during his years in the Florida senate. Under his leadership this year the Florida senate helped deal with a $4 billion deficit in Florida's budget. The current spending plan eliminates 4,000 state workers and obliges the state's government school teachers to pay three percent toward their retirement. Way less than folks in the private sector must pay, but three percent more than Florida's well-compensated government teachers were paying.

But Florida conservatives sniff that Haridopolos got far less than he could have, considering the Florida Legislature is 2-1 Republican and the governor and all cabinet members are Republican. His opponents particularly like to point out that Haridopolos was unable to get any meaningful immigration legislation.

Being senate president, and Haridopolos will continue in that post in 2012, means he will have little trouble raising campaign cash. In the first reporting quarter Haridopolos hauled in $2.6 million.

In a perfect world it wouldn't matter, but though Haridopolos is 41 he looks 25 and sounds 16. He has a high-pitched voice that is so squeaky it sounds like his nickname should be "Sparky." He can't help this, and it's not fair. But these things might cost him a few points. If he were running for student-body president he would be perfect.

So these are the guys against Nelson, who should be vulnerable. Nelson has voted for cap and trade, Obamacare, and all of the other left phantasms that Floridians consistently tell pollsters they don't fancy. He doesn't wear a Mao jacket to work, but he may as well. Any one of the Republican candidates would compile a much more conservative record than Nelson has in his two terms in the Senate.

But it won't be easy. Nelson is a low-key fellow who speaks with a disarming, good-ole-boy drawl. Florida's left-stream media insist on referring to him as a "moderate." Looking at Nelson's voting record, Floridians are entitled to wonder what it would take to earn the title "left-wing geek."

Sharon Day, co-chair of the RNC and Florida's Republican Committeewoman, told me, "There should be some price to pay for his [Nelson's] votes. We're living with the results of those votes now. There needs to be some accountability." 

Do these Republican candidates, singing from the conservative hymnal, mean what they say or are they just tuned in to polls and focus groups? Floridians will get a clearer picture of this in the 14 months before the state's primaries, and nearly 17 to the general election. But the success of any one of these would almost certainly move Florida politically to the right and help stave off what Florida conservatives refer to as the dreaded purple disease.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.