Rep. Connie Mack IV, a late entrant in the Florida Senate race, all but locked up the Republican nomination Tuesday after his top rival, former Sen. George LeMieux, dropped out.
Avoiding a real primary fight will save Mack, the son of former Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), a lot of money. And it gives the Congressman a chance to start fully focusing on Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson two months before the August primary. But that doesn’t mean Mack has an easier path to unseating the two-term Senator than he did on Monday.
Multiple GOP strategists in the state still see Mack’s journey to the Senate as a steep climb.
“He’s a weak candidate. Let’s just be honest,” one Florida Republican operative said. “He is a pale shadow of his father’s greatness as a politician.”
Part of that perceived weakness is his natural ability as a politician, but part comes from what is seen in Florida political circles as relatively lackluster fundraising despite his famous surname and support from the full spectrum of the Republican Party.
At the end of March, Mack had $1.4 million in cash on hand while Nelson had $9.5 million.
A strong buy on statewide television in the last month before the election can cost nearly $2 million a week in Florida.
Part of the rigorous slog for Mack is how hard it will be to define Nelson. The longtime Florida officeholder is a well-known if not particularly well-defined quantity to voters. Nelson is generally seen as moderate, and Mack’s difficulty will be in undoing that perception in a huge state.
“Certainly Bill Nelson has good name ID and very low negatives,” Florida GOP strategist Ana Navarro said. “Nelson has the advantage of not being a scary, fire-breathing ... Democrat.”
Some of Mack’s perceived weakness also comes from the large opposition research book on personal missteps in his younger days made public by investigative stories in the Miami Herald.
Democrats already have gleefully jumped on that line of attack. The first sentence of a statement issued by a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee included the phrase: “Connie Mack’s well documented record of drunken brawls, violent road rage episodes, and attacks on law enforcement.”
Criticism of Mack doesn’t faze the campaign, though.
“That chattering class [that criticizes Mack] has been proven wrong time and again, thus far,” Mack spokesman David James said. “Knocking out three primary opponents, raising Nelson at an almost even pace in [the first quarter], beating Nelson by 1 point in a recent Quinnipiac poll — we feel extremely good about where we are right now.”
But where the Mack camp will be in November seems more linked to outside factors than ones in their control.
Florida is a state that looks like an increasingly difficult contest for President Barack Obama to win in November. And buoyed by external factors, some GOP insiders are hopeful that Mack can hew a path to victory.
“He’s got a lot of money to raise, and he’s got a message to clean up, but of course he can win,” Florida GOP consultant Brian Hughes said. “We have to remind voters Nelson is not some old Dixiecrat; he votes with Obama most of the time.”
According to a Congressional Quarterly vote study, Bill Nelson voted with the president 97 percent of the time in 2011 in votes where Obama had a clear position.
“I think Connie’s challenge is to try to say: [Nelson] is Obama’s mini-me,” Navarro said. “Bill’s challenge is to try ... to maintain the crossover votes he’s had in the past.”
One other factor at play: outside groups.
A pro-Mack PAC reportedly got a $1 million infusion from GOP donor Sheldon Adelson recently. And better-funded outside groups, such as the juggernaut GOP-affiliated Crossroads GPS, could change the dynamic of the race in Mack’s favor.
But strategists in both parties wondered whether third-party groups would be willing to gamble on the race given the extraordinarily high cost to move the needle in Florida’s expensive TV markets.
“The Crossroads guys, they’ve got a lot of money but not unlimited money,” said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s winning 2008 campaign in the Sunshine State. “I think they’re going to have to make a decision about whether it’s worth throwing $2 million a week at Nelson if it doesn’t move his numbers.”
Even the Obama-Nelson message is one that Democrats appear to be only marginally worried about, because if Obama doesn’t win the state, he’ll get pretty close. And Nelson is widely expected to outperform the president.
“Bill Nelson is a survivor,” one Republican consultant in the state said. “He’s been in office since ’72. There have been GOP waves and Democratic waves ... and the one constant is that Bill Nelson can connect with voters of Florida.”