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Florida Republicans Seek the Next Marco Rubio | Farm Team

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Ros-Lehtinen said the GOP is confident about its prospects in Florida.

The Florida Republican Party is flourishing, with a deep bench available for the next competitive or open-seat race. But the local party’s primary concern is protecting its 17-to-10 edge in the House delegation.

“We’re going to make sure that Floridians understand that [no matter what Democrat is] challenging one of our incumbents, that this is about Nancy Pelosi,” Florida Republican Party Chairman Lenny Curry said, referencing the House minority leader. “Beyond that, Florida has a whole host of folks that could do any number of things, whether it’s run for Congress or Senate.”

The Sunshine State GOP is grooming a new generation of future House and Senate candidates. Most of the recruits are unknown to a national audience, but then, so was Republican Sen. Marco Rubio a few years ago.

Republicans frequently cite the man who holds Rubio’s former position in the legislature, state Speaker Will Weatherford, as a future statewide candidate.

“The star conservative right now is Will Weatherford,” said Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson.

Interviews with several Florida Republican operatives yielded three more names of likely future statewide candidates, either for governor or Senate: state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, state Attorney General Pam Bondi and former congressman and current state Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam.

They also floated more familiar names for Senate: MSNBC “Morning Joe” host and former Rep. Joe Scarborough, along with former Rep. Connie Mack, Rep. Dennis A. Ross and former Sen. George LeMieux.

The GOP’s bench for House races is much less certain, given that the state’s congressional boundaries remained mired in litigation.

Democrats argue that courts will strike down the current congressional map under the state’s new Fair Districts law. Their hope is that the courts will issue a map more favorable to Democrats.

Republicans have expressed confidence that the courts will uphold the House map they drew last year. Under those lines, the GOP’s two best pickup opportunities are in the Miami region: the 18th and 26th districts.

“Miami is just loaded with GOP talent,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told CQ Roll Call.

Republicans are lining up to challenge freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy, a Democrat, in the 18th District. GOP recruits include Juno Beach Vice Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Andel, businessman Gary Uber, former state Rep. Carl Domino, state Rep. Gayle B. Harrell, state Sen. Joe Negron and St. Lucie County Commissioner Tod Mowery.

But some Republicans are also excited about the potential candidacy of Adam Hasner, who lost a House race last cycle to now-Rep. Lois Frankel in the 22nd District. One source went so far as to call Hasner “the sacrificial lamb” for running in a tough district for Republicans, but Hasner has ties to the 18th District, better territory for Republicans.

Republicans expect a similarly crowded field to challenge freshman Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., in the 26th District. But GOP operatives consistently mention two top candidates for the seat: state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz and Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo. Republicans also suggested state Sens. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Anitere Flores and Rene Garcia as potential candidates for that seat.

Meanwhile, Republicans expressed concern about the 13th District if Republican Rep. C.W. Bill Young ever retires. The 82-year-old consistently tops Roll Call’s retirement watch list with his feeble fundraising.

Young coasted to re-election this past cycle, but the composition of his district is competitive. Republicans are privately concerned that his name identification has helped them hold on to the seat. A different Republican on the ballot could mean a more difficult race than in the past.

Several Republicans could run for Young’s seat if he retires. Local operatives named state Sen. Jack Latvala, former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and former Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield as potential candidates.

Republican operatives also suggested Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson’s 9th District as a potential pickup. Grayson came back to Congress last year with a 26-point victory, but Republicans say the district could be competitive with the right candidate.

Specifically, Republicans are hunting for a candidate with Puerto Rican heritage who can win the GOP primary. They suggested former state Rep. John “Q” Quinones, but he failed in 2012 to win the GOP nomination.

Quinones exemplifies the GOP’s problem in this district: Any Republican nominee who can put the seat in play is unlikely to make it through the primary.

Nonetheless, Republicans express confidence overall about their prospects in Florida.

“We are not worried about the future,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “We’ve got good candidates.”

Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The column runs on Thursdays. The previous Farm Team focused on Democrats in Florida.

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