The state that brought you Republican candidates as varied as Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris, Charlie Crist, Allen West, Rick Scott, Marco Rubio and Joe Scarborough will be choosing a Senate nominee next year, and the early signs point to a fight for the heart and soul of the party.
Florida Republicans believe that Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is a juicy target. But the possibility of a nasty primary, which Republicans avoided last cycle when then-Gov. Crist bolted the GOP to run for Senate as an Independent, looks real.
So far, state Senate President Mike Haridopolos and former Sen. George LeMieux are in the race, but former state Rep. Adam Hasner, who served as Majority Leader when now-Sen. Rubio was state Speaker, is expected to enter the race.
Others are convinced the field will grow, but one potentially significant Florida officeholder, Rep. Connie Mack IV, has already removed himself from consideration.
In some ways, LeMieux is the most interesting figure in the race.
A one-time chief of staff to Crist, LeMieux, 41, was appointed to the Senate by Crist after then-Sen. Mel Martinez (R) resigned. LeMieux served in office for 16 months, but he didn’t run for a full term. Rubio eventually won by defeating Crist and then-Rep. Kendrick Meek (D).
LeMieux’s connection to Crist, once the darling of the GOP grass roots but now a pariah to most Republicans, is an obvious liability in a primary where conservatives will constitute the largest single chunk of the electorate.
LeMieux, after all, did once stand next to the now-discredited Crist and refer to himself as a “Charlie Crist Republican,” and more than a few Sunshine State Republicans and conservatives see him as little more than a political creation of Crist.
But LeMieux, who narrowly lost a bid for the state Legislature in 1998 yet got good marks for his service as Broward County GOP chairman a few years later, may not be so easy to pigeonhole.
During his brief time in the Senate, he compiled a conservative record, opposing the DREAM Act and ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy while supporting an extension of the Bush tax cuts. And he has made overtures to conservatives throughout the state for many months.
Maybe even more noteworthy, LeMieux has hired highly regarded campaign consultant Jon Lerner to handle his polling and strategy.
Lerner’s past clients include now-Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who is a former leader of the Club for Growth, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Lee and Haley are favorites of the tea party movement. Lerner has also polled for Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund and for the Club for Growth.
“I proudly produced TV ads criticizing Charlie Crist for his numerous liberal positions. If I thought that George LeMieux was like Charlie Crist, I wouldn’t be working with him,” Lerner told me.
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