The Corner

Politics & Policy

Florida’s Lieutenant Governor on Why the Florida GOP Must Win the 2016 Senate Race

While the political world waits with excitement . . . well, contentment . . . well, impatience for Jeb Bush to make his announcement, another Florida politician is also inching closer to a decision on a high-stakes campaign for office:

Lopez-Cantera on Why Florida GOP Must Win the 2016 Senate Race

On Friday afternoon, I had the chance to speak to Florida lieutenant governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who’s strongly considering running for the Senate seat that Marco Rubio will depart from, one way or another, in January 2017.

How seriously is he considering it? Well, if he ends up deciding to not run, there wasn’t much point in him talking to me, now was there?

“We’re still talking to grassroots folks, the donor class, and elected officials,” he told me. “We’ve been getting positive feedback, and there could be an announcement soon.”

Several Republicans, including the state’s chief financial officer, Jeff Atwater, state attorney general Pam Bondi, and representatives Vern Buchanan, Tom Rooney, and Daniel Webster, considered a bid and decided against it.

“Florida is a big state. Huge, 20 million people, and geographically, having run a statewide campaign, it’s very daunting,” Lopez-Cantera said. “That’s part of why we’re taking our time to determine if this is the right thing.”

He said he would not step down as lieutenant governor if he ran, and that he’s been discussing his options with Governor Rick Scott.

I asked him if it would be tougher running in a presidential year, particularly with Republicans focused on a presidential race, and Florida Republicans perhaps particularly focused on the bids of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. “Our donor class and our grassroots folks here in Florida recognize that keeping this seat Republican is just as important as winning the White House,” Lopez-Cantera said. “I think there will be a lot of energy to just get a win for the team, rather than a particular candidate.”

Lopez-Cantera already endorsed Rubio’s presidential bid; he first met Rubio in the Bob Dole presidential campaign’s Miami office back in 1996.

“We had a lot of fun that summer,” Lopez-Cantera recalls. “Bob Dole spent a lot of time down here. We all went to the convention. Those friendships continue to today. Marco distinguished himself as a leader back then. We all recognized his talent and passion back then. We all said back then he would be president one day.”

I laid out the “Mission: Impossible” for Florida Republicans earlier this year:

Florida has ten media markets, most of them expensive, including the 13th-largest in the nation (Tampa–St. Petersburg), the 16th (Miami–Fort Lauderdale), the 19th (Orlando–Daytona Beach), the 38th (West Palm Beach), and the 49th (Jacksonville). Each of those markets is home to at least nine television stations and network affiliates. An aspiring senator has to raise enough money to get television ads up on the air in most or all of those markets, because there simply aren’t enough hours in a day to outpace the opposition through events and personal appearances alone.

The primary will probably have more than a million voters. (More than 1.1 million Republicans voted in the GOP primary in 2012.) Florida is also more geographically vast than it seems — it takes about seven hours to drive from Miami to Tallahassee.

Raising the money to meet these organizational challenges won’t be easy. The GOP donor class, of course, will be focused primarily on the presidential race, and Florida’s donors will be particularly focused on the races of home-state candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. The presidential race will also dominate news coverage, suck up veteran political campaign staff, and absorb the energies of grassroots volunteers.

The reward for the candidate who, in the face of these natural disadvantages, raises enough money to compete? He or she faces a state with extraordinarily complex demographics in both the primary and general electorates: Cuban Americans in Miami, a rapidly growing population of Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area, seniors all over central Florida, and socially conservative, rock-ribbed Republicans in the north. And after building a viable statewide organization, raising and spending a considerable sum of money, and navigating Florida’s demographic minefield to win the primary, the candidate has to do it all over again in the general election, in a state that where Democrats enjoy a 400,000+ voter-registration advantage. The electorate will undoubtedly be bigger than in the midterm election that elected Rubio, and will likely include a lot more Democrats.

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