TAMPA -- With conservative energy running high, Republicans in Florida nearly ran the electoral table in 2010, with all of the party's candidates running on unambiguous conservative platforms. There was every reason then to believe that center-right Florida was back after being fooled into giving the little hustler from Chicago 50.9 percent of its vote for president in 2008.
Maybe so. Maybe not. Recent polls show the race between President O'Barnum and Mitt Romney to be a dead heat. Floridians have heard "within the margin of error" a lot lately.
There was also reason after the 2010 electoral triumph for Florida conservatives to be optimistic about retiring Bill Nelson, Florida's two-term, liberal U.S. Senator who must face the voters this November. After all, Nelson has consistently voted for liberal phantasms: Obama's stimulus slush fund, cap and trade, Obamacare, and just about anything else that costs a lot of money and transfers more power to the central government. If Nelson is even aware of the nation's life-threatening debt and deficits, he's given no evidence of it.
Polls have shown the policies Nelson votes for are not popular with a majority of Floridians. His approval ratings have been nothing to brag about. Even his name recognition numbers are low for a guy who has been at one station or another of the public trough since 1972.
But for all this, Nelson (call sign, "Lucky") seems to be cruising toward re-election, and six more years as Florida's only Democrat in state-wide elective office. In recent polls Nelson has held double-digit leads over all of his possible Republican opponents.
Nelson will face one of four Republican candidates. Three are problematic. The other is a former member of the U.S. House who is little known outside of his congressional district and who hopped into the race this past weekend. He has less than three months to make himself known before the August 14 primary.
George LeMieux, a South Florida attorney, served 16 months in the U.S. Senate after former Florida Senator Mel Martinez resigned from his seat in the summer of 2009. LeMieux suffers from his connection with former Republican Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who appointed LeMieux to the Senate. LeMieux was Crist's campaign manager and chief of staff when Crist was Florida's attorney general, then governor. Crist is Castor Oil to the Republican base in Florida after he drifted left and then abandoned the party altogether to run, unsuccessfully, as an independent against Marco Rubio, now Florida's conservative, rookie U.S. Senator.
LeMieux is a bright but charisma-challenged fellow who maintained a conservative voting record in his short hitch in the Senate. And as soon as Crist left the Republican Party, LeMieux endorsed Rubio for the Senate. But LeMieux is still haunted by the Ghost of Charlie's Past. And it hasn't helped him that Florida's newspapers last week ran a series of stories suggesting a connection between LeMieux and indicted former Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer.
Connie Mack IV, a member of the U.S. House representing the Fort Myers area, has his own Charlie problem. Mack's conduct as a young man, which included bar fights and road rage incidents, suggests he studied public conduct on a Charlie Sheen scholarship.
Today's Mack, now in his forties, is a more decorous item. And most polls show him leading comfortably in the Republican race. But his early peccadilloes, along with past financial difficulties and the question of how much of a Florida resident he is (he's married to Congresswoman Mary Bono of California -- yes, widow of Sonny), would present Democrats with a target-rich environment in the general, as they have for LeMieux in the primary.
Mack led Nelson briefly in the polls before his frat boy past became public knowledge, and before many Republican voters finally realized that Mack IV is not Connie Mack III, the retired but still much respected former U.S. Senator from Florida.
The third wheel in the Republican race is Plant City businessman Mike McCalister, who has gotten very little traction and collected very little campaign cash. The newbie in the race is former U.S. Rep. David Weldon, who compiled a conservative voting record while representing the Brevard County area from 1994 to 2008. He has to be considered the longest of long shots, with almost no money to build the name recognition he would need to compete, and no connections with the Republican fund-raising establishment.
Speaking of fund-raising, the other Republican problem is that Nelson's available campaign cash is a multiple of that of every Republican candidate, with no primary opponent to spend that campaign money on. Nelson will, of course, get favorable coverage from Florida's left-stream media.
So there it is. The Republican Senate effort, which looked promising just a short while ago, has devolved into a pig's breakfast. Unless something wildly unexpected happens to his discredit before November, Bill "Lucky" Nelson will likely once again escape responsibility for his liberal record and continue to misrepresent center-right Florida in the U.S. Senate.
National Republicans nurture hopes of gaining a majority in the U.S. Senate this November. It might happen. But as things stand now, they shouldn't expect any help from the lower right.