TAMPA -- A little brush got cleared from the Florida U.S. Senate race this week when Florida State Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Merritt Island) dropped out.
Haridopolos had been successful in raising campaign cash, $3.5 million over the last two reporting periods. This isn't that tricky considering how many folks like to keep state senate presidents happy. But for all the money, he had baggage and his campaign was unraveling. Staff was abandoning ship.
Haridopolos said he dropped out of the race to pay more attention to his job as president of the Florida Senate. Made it sound like he was doing Floridians a favor. But his baggage included, though was not limited to, a "book" the Florida Community College where Haridopolos worked paid him $152,000 to write, and a stealth political consultant Haridopolos had idling on the public payroll until she was needed. These would have been difficult to square with his professed fiscal conservatism. Recent concern for his state job notwithstanding, Haridopolos almost certainly concluded, as did many other political observers, that he couldn't win the primary.
It's difficult to say which remaining Senate candidate benefits most from this departure. Perhaps it just adds a little clarity to what will be one of the most watched U.S. Senate races in the country next year. Conservatives have a chance to push the ideological balance in the U.S. Senate to the right if the survivor of the Florida Republican Senate primary can defeat two-term incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. Nelson is one of those Senate "moderates" that the left-stream media loves, i.e., one who votes for every bit of left-wing geekery that comes down the pike.
Nelson has whooped up and/or voted for just about every bad idea to come out of the Obama administration or the Reid-Pelosi Congress (which has kept him a very busy "moderate"), including cap and trade, the "stimulus" slush fund, ObamaCare, and every conceivable form of regulation and incontinent spending. He's been no help in the current debt crisis.
Nelson even voted against a measure that would have prevented the Environmental Protection Agency from enacting its own carbon cap and trade program. Florida's conservative rookie senator, Marco Rubio, voted for the bill that would have prevented the administration from doing administratively what the Congress turned down. Candidates running for the Republican Senate nomination say they would have too.
Nelson has not been obliged to pay the price for supporting policies Floridians tell pollsters they don't like. He has run twice against weak candidates, and the left-stream media here have not made his liberal voting record public knowledge. He's flown under the radar.
Nelson has the Florida media on his side and more than $6 million in campaign cash on hand. But all will not be smooth sailing. A recent poll conducted for Sunshine State News found that while Nelson's favorable/unfavorable rating is above water at 32-27, a mind-boggling 41 percent of respondents either expressed no opinion of Nelson or said they were "not aware" of him.
If this poll sample represents Florida voters, it means that almost half of them don't know what to make of a man who has been a U.S. Congressman from Central Florida, Florida Insurance Commissioner or a U.S. Senator from Florida since 1972. It's a rare politician who can make almost no impression on his constituents in almost 40 years in office.
Can Nelson, in 2012, once again make a virtue of mediocrity and hide his liberalism from voters in a state where people self-identify as conservatives by two to one? Foiling this would be the job of the Republicans seeking to replace Nelson, all running on conservative platforms. They are:
Former U.S. Senator George LeMieux, who served the final 16 months of the term of former Senator Mel Martinez who resigned in the summer of 2009. LeMieux was appointed to that post by former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, whom LeMieux had worked for as campaign manager and chief of staff. When appointed, LeMieux pledged not to run for the office himself in 2010. He was thought of as a seat-warmer for Crist, who sought the office himself in 2010 but was routed by Rubio.
In the Senate, LeMieux compiled a conservative record. And when Crist abandoned the Republican Party to run against Rubio as in independent, LeMieux made a clean and complete break with Crist and supported Rubio. But his critics claim he was the architect of the many liberal policies that Crist adopted on the way from being a conservative Republican to being a liberal independent.
He'll have to fight this Crist contamination to establish himself as a true conservative. Early indications are he is doing pretty well. He led the pack in collecting campaign contributions with $950,000 in the most recent quarter. For good or ill, LeMieux is seen by most as the establishment candidate.
Former state representative Adam Hasner of Boca Raton was appointed by Rubio to be Florida House Majority Leader when Rubio was Speaker. He's considered the movement conservative in the race. He's campaigning on themes of limited government and reduced spending, a tough foreign policy, and economic expansion. In so doing he's garnered the endorsements of national conservative organizations and personalities, much in the way Rubio did in 2009 and 2010. Hasner fetched in $560,000 in campaign cash in the latest quarter.
Retired Army Colonel Mike McCalister has only been in the race since late June and has mostly appeared before Tea Party groups. McCalister, who is running as a conservative and an outsider, finished third of three in the 2010 Republican primary for governor. He's yet to report on his campaign contributions.
The latest entry into the race, so recent as to have been last week, is 61-year-old Orlando area restaurateur, Craig Miller, who puts his private sector success up against the government careers of his opponents. Miller, an Air Force veteran who served at Cam Rahn Bay AFB at the height of the Vietnam war, who says he too will put economic revitalization at the center of his efforts if he's elected, claims he has actually created tens of thousands of jobs at such restaurant chains as Red Lobster and Ruth's Chris Steak House.
Can one of these conservatives bump off the liberal in 2012? Way too much time and chance between now and November of 2012 to say. But Nelson is by any measure a weak candidate. And Florida still is, 2008's presidential hiccup notwithstanding, more red than blue. By January of 2013, Rubio could be Florida's senior senator.