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.
“I spoke to conservative Senators about him and they heartily sang his praises,” continued Lerner, noting that LeMieux “opposed earmarks before it was cool.”
The problem for LeMieux is that Haridopolos and Hasner will run hard to LeMieux’s right and will seek to demonize the one-time appointed Senator as merely a protégé of Crist. And in a Florida primary dominated by the most conservative, anti-Crist voters, that is a problem for LeMieux.
Haridopolos, 41, is a former community college instructor who was first elected to the Florida House in 2000. Two years later, he was elected to the state Senate, and he was sworn in as Senate President last November. His district is located along the east coast of central Florida.
But Haridopolos has had a number of ethics problems, and he has recently been battered in the media for accepting $152,000 from Brevard Community College for a 175-page book that took him four years to write. (Only one copy of the “book” was printed.)
Given recent ethics and legal problems that have dogged some in the GOP, including former state party Chairman Jim Greer, a close ally of Crist, observers believe Haridopolos’ baggage severely damages his Senate prospects, though they also predict his first-quarter fundraising numbers will be huge, a function of his powerful position in the state Senate.
But regardless of whether Haridopolos can recover from the criticism he has received, Hasner looks poised to enter the race. Insiders believe he will be a formidable contender for the nomination.
Hasner, also 41 and like Haridopolos born in New York, represented parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties in the state House until 2010.
Personable and articulate, Hasner is often referred to as “a favorite of grass-roots conservatives,” and he received a glowing review by conservative columnist John Gizzi in a recent edition of Human Events, a conservative newspaper and website. He also has strong fundraising potential from Jewish Republicans in Florida but also nationally, and his ties to Rubio will be an obvious asset.
“The next big issue on the horizon is going to be to see how many Republicans have the principle to stand up and vote ‘no’ on increasing the debt ceiling,” Hasner said late last month during an appearance on uncompromising conservative Mark Levin’s radio show.
When Levin asked Hasner whether he considered himself “aligned with tea party activists” such as Lee and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Hasner said, “I do.”
Savvy insiders all agree that money will be a factor for the three GOP hopefuls. The state is large, advertising is costly, and voters normally don’t have politics high on their list of priorities. Fundraising is particularly crucial for LeMieux, who will need to change the impression that he and Crist are one.
Multiple people told me that LeMieux is “a great guy” who is smart and able. But they also agree that the “Charlie Crist stain,” as one put it, will be a problem for the former Senator in a race where conservatives will pick the next Senate nominee. For consultant Jon Lerner, that will be an interesting challenge.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.