Concern about lack-luster GOP Senate primary field grows
Today, the Orlando Sentinel is reporting Republican operatives are publicly expressing concern over the current weak field of GOP Senate candidates. The concern comes amid Adam Hasner and George LeMieux's lack-luster third quarter fundraising that earned them the top spot on Hotline on Call's biggest losers of the quarter list.
By Scott Powers, Orlando Sentinel
1:41 p.m. EDT, October 15, 2011
Though it's still 10 months until the U.S. Senate primary, four Republicans have been campaigning for the nomination since spring. Yet poll after poll shows that more than half of GOP voters, asked to choose one of them, respond, "None of the above."
Even Republican operatives are starting to worry — and look around.
"The Senate primary is a mess right now. None of the candidates has caught fire," said pollster Alex Patton of War Room Logistics, a Republican-leaning consulting group.
Influential Republicans such as Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee, have tried to nudge bigger names into the race, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and former Gov. Jeb Bush, but to no avail.
Popular party stalwarts such as U.S. Reps. Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers and Vern Buchanan of Sarasota, U.S. Rep. and tea-party favorite Allen West of Plantation and former House Speaker Allan Bense of Panama City also have opted out.
One reason: Two-term incumbent Democrat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's poll numbers are fairly strong and steady — showing him beating any Republican right now. And he's a proven fundraiser. The big hope for Republicans: a big anti-Barack Obama backlash might take him out.
"All the smart money says Nelson holds his seat," said Sid Dinerstein, chair of the Palm Beach County Republican Executive Committee. "I'm not enamored with the smart money. I'm not inclined to think any Democrat holds his seat."
Still, the current GOP field has not only failed to produce a front-runner, but there's also not even much movement.
Two of the candidates have held public office: George LeMieux, appointed to the U.S. Senate for 16 months in 2009-10; and Adam Hasner, an eight-year legislator who was House Majority Leader under the man he's striving to emulate, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
The other two are businessmen who've never been in public office — each lost a primary election in 2010 — and lack both money and connections. Yet, surveys show Plant City farmer Mike McCalister and former Ruth's Chris CEO Craig Miller of Winter Park are within a few percentage points of LeMieux and Hasner.
If the field stays the same, Oliver predicted, it could remain tight — and low profile — until close to the August primary, when the candidates start buying TV ads.
"Then voters will make their judgments based on what happens in the past six or eight weeks in the media," Oliver said. "That's when the money advantage takes place."
But the money is coming slowly to Republicans. On Friday LeMieux's campaign announced it raised $402,916 in the third quarter of 2011, for a total of $1,023,181 on hand after expenses, and Hasner's said it drew $535,000 and had $786,000 on hand. LeMieux started the quarter with $840,000, and Hasner with $472,000. Miller announced he raised $226,000 and finished the quarter with $145,000. It was Miller's first quarter in the race.
McCalister did not release his money totals Friday, and had little money before the quarter began. The official reports, for the three months through Sept. 30, are due Saturday and should be available soon.
Meanwhile, Nelson's campaign said this week that it raised nearly $2 million in the third quarter and has roughly $7.5 million in hand. At this point in last Senate race, Rubio — whose campaign as a self-styled conservative insurgent is what Hasner is trying to emulate — raised more than $1 million in the third quarter of 2009.
LeMieux, 42, a lawyer from Lighthouse Point, was Charlie Crist's campaign "maestro" and chief of staff before the governor appointed him in 2009 to serve the last 16 months of Mel Martinez's U.S. Senate term after he abruptly resigned.
Hasner, 41, a financial consultant from Boca Raton, spent eight years in the Florida House.
Both are building establishment networks, touring for speeches, and releasing statements and policies to the media almost daily, most notably LeMieux's "Four Freedoms" economic plan released last week. One key proposal: raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 over time.
The two also attack each other, almost daily, while ignoring Miller and McCalister. Hasner attempts to tie LeMieux to Crist's moderate politics — "LeMieux: It's French for Crist," reads one bumper sticker — which LeMieux disavows. LeMieux attempts to paint Hasner's record in the Florida House as moderate, which Hasner disputes.
Poll after poll finds more than half of voters — as high as 82 percent in the latest War Room poll — keep saying "none of the above."
In the past month, a War Room poll had LeMieux ahead, but with each candidate below 10 percent. Quinnipiac University had LeMieux leading with 17 percent. Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling had McCalister on top with 17 percent. Hasner won the state straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. Miller won the straw poll at the "A Conservative Roar In the I-4 Corridor" rally in Sanford.
McCalister, 59, a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, has been wooing local tea parties hoping for a grass-roots movement. Among his recent appearances was a speech to 65 people at a Winter Haven 9-12 Project meeting.
"Let me describe the scene," said the group's vice president, Pete Smith, 65, a retired firefighter from Lake Alfred. "After he completed his talk virtually everyone stood up in applause. A standing ovation."
Miller, 62, a consultant, has been trying to capture attention with his occasional "Miller on Main Street" work events — he'll be at Lake Tire & Auto in Tavares Wednesday — but he has not made many waves.
Yet his business background, as former CEO of national restaurant chains including Ruth's Chris, appeals to other affluent businessmen, said Joe Gruters, chairman of Sarasota County's Republican Party Executive Committee.
"Craig Miller, I think he still has a chance," Gruters said. "In the past week I've gotten calls from our big donors, who are likely to support Craig Miller."
In last Senate race, Rubio's challenge to then-Gov. Crist for the Republican nomination started as a long shot, But by this point in 2009, he was at close to 30 percent in polls.
But Rubio, handsome, charismatic and earnest, was able to be the lone conservative alternative to Crist just when the governor's moderate politics were falling out of favor with Republicans, causing him to eventually bolt the party.
"None of these folks are Marco Rubio. So that's one," Oliver said. "And two, I don't think there's a dramatic amount of ideological differences between the four candidates."