Florida Field Far From Settled

Jeb Fades From the Picture

Posted January 7, 2009 at 6:35pm

When it comes to Florida’s 2010 open-seat Senate contest, former Gov. Jeb Bush (R) was the 800-pound gorilla who would have cleared the GOP primary field.

But a day after Bush announced he was opting out of the contest — giving way for a wide-open playing field — there wasn’t much of a flood of new candidate announcements from Florida Republicans. Indeed, what movement there was came in drips.

On Wednesday, former Florida state Speaker Marco Rubio (R) was the only potential contender who was clearly inching closer to entering the race in light of Bush’s announcement.

Rubio — known as a social conservative who backed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the 2008 Republican presidential primary — said he is “very seriously” exploring his own Senate run. Rubio is traveling to Washington, D.C., next week to discuss the possibility with GOP leaders.

“Clearly it’s a unique opportunity and one that you explore seriously if … you are interested in influencing the direction of this country and needs of the state of Florida,” Rubio said.

Meanwhile, Sally Tibbetts, a spokeswoman for sophomore Rep. Vern Buchanan (R), acknowledged Wednesday that a Senate bid “is something [Buchanan] has not ruled out and is something he will consider.”

Buchanan has deep pockets to boost a possible Senate run but he also carries some serious personal baggage, including a series of lawsuits alleging fraud at car dealerships that he owns.

Other Republicans whose names have most often been mentioned in recent weeks declined to make any bold moves in light of Bush’s decision to skip the Senate race.

“Jeb Bush was a great governor and he would have been an outstanding United States Senator,” Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.) said in a statement. “At the same time, I have been flattered to hear from many people around the state who are strongly urging me to run.”

But Mack, who has been working the phones talking to supporters as he mulls a Senate bid, would only say that “this is a decision … that requires careful thought and deliberation and which certainly doesn’t need to be made at this time.”

Mack, the son of former Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), would benefit from having high name identification in Florida if he were to run. And although his re-election account holds just more than half a million dollars, he certainly could tap into his father’s statewide connections to help fund an expensive Senate bid.

Another major Republican known to be considering the race is Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, who was beat by now-Sen. Bill Nelson (D) in 2000 and lost the Republican nomination to now-Sen. Mel Martinez in 2004. Despite his record on Senate campaigns, McCollum is well-known and certainly has a statewide network that raised millions for his successful attorney general race in 2006.

As the GOP field continues to develop, some Republicans in Washington were wondering whether former Florida state Speaker Allan Bense (R) or perhaps even Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R) might throw their hats into the ring now that Bush is out.

For their part, strategists at the National Republican Senatorial Committee said they are confident that a strong candidate will emerge in the Sunshine State and brushed off attempts by some Democrats to paint the loss of Bush as a recruiting failure on the part of the committee.

“Republicans have always expected Florida to be competitive regardless of the name on the ballot,” NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said. “But the good news is that Republicans have a popular governor, a strong party infrastructure and a solid bench of candidates to choose from so we feel very positive about the Florida seat moving forward.”

On the Democratic side, most insiders remain focused on whether the state’s chief financial officer, Alex Sink, will run. Elected in 2006, the former Bank of America executive is a well-known political moderate who has long been considered a likely 2010 gubernatorial or Senate candidate.

But a Sink candidacy may not necessarily clear the field.

Four-term Rep. Kendrick Meek (D), whose hails from Southeast Florida, has been traveling the state talking to supporters about a potential bid. But Rep. Ron Klein (D) is also known to be mulling a run, and if he does enter the race, he could set up a south Florida battle.

That situation might actually be good news for 2nd district Rep. Allen Boyd (D), who hails from Florida’s Panhandle and has also expressed interest in the Senate.

Boyd, who considered running for the Senate in 2004, is sitting on more than $1 million in his campaign account, and he was the first Member to make his interest in the Senate seat known when Martinez made his surprise announcement in November that he would not seek another term.