At first glance, Florida’s Senate primary to replace Marco Rubio is a microcosm of the last five years of Republican Party politics: Tea Party groups fall behind one candidate, the establishment siding with another.
However, both candidates are steering clear of this ideological divide and are striving for broader appeal with primary voters.
Last week, Washington-based conservative groups, which worked to take down Republican senators in the last election cycle, have thrown support behind U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis. At the same time, Andrea Drusch of the National Journal reports that a group of GOP establishment operatives are quietly supporting the pre-campaign of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Rubio’s friend and ally.
After state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater surprised many by bowing out of the race, much of the state’s Republican establishment is rallying behind Lopez-Cantera, who may soon announce his candidacy.
This will set up the contest to become one of the biggest, most expensive Senate races in 2016, with neither candidate willing to back down easily. DeSantis and Lopez-Cantera feel their respective camps have enough room for donors in all parts of the GOP spectrum, and both are pushing not to alienate any faction so early in the race.
“I’m a ‘Ronald Reagan Republican’ and conservative…. I think that’s the best label,” DeSantis told reporters last week about his involvement in the Tea Party movement. “I think some of these other labels are kind of used as epithets now and people just want to throw names at you.”
As the DeSantis team tries to paint him as one of the “consensus candidates,” they are backing away from the antagonism marked by Tea Party conservatives taking on incumbents in 2014.
DeSantis supporters insist he has maintained a good relationship with the GOP and point to a record that should appeal to Republicans of all types. Nevertheless, he was one of those critical of House Speaker John Boehner and was strongly opposed to what some Republicans call the “CRomnibus.” On the other hand, DeSantis did not take part in the attempted leadership coup of Boehner earlier this year.
Some defenders of past establishment candidates say that DeSantis does appeal to establishment-type donors, who are keeping an open mind about his candidacy.
The Chamber of Commerce has met with DeSantis, according to senior political strategist Scott Reed, as one of the candidates in a field that is just beginning to shape up. The Chamber has not yet met with Lopez-Cantera, whose team is attempting to paint him as a conservative similar in ideology to Rubio, whom many supporters helped elect to the Senate in 2010.
One anonymous source told Drusch that Rubio’s office attempted to arrange a meeting for Lopez-Cantera with the conservative advocacy group Club for Growth, but the meeting never happened, as the group had already endorsed DeSantis.
After several cycles of seeing candidates campaign as outsiders only to vote along with party leadership once in office, conservative groups say they prefer a candidate with a proven record of taking hard stances.
But even as candidates appeal for unity, radical wings of the GOP stay fiercely divided, Drusch writes. Part of the gap is based on ideology, as well the bitter primaries of the past five years.
Whoever wins the Republican primary winner will still have to face Democratic nominee Patrick Murphy, who is emerging as an arduous fundraiser. The second-term congressman may not be as well-known across the state, but after many big GOP names dropped out of contention, neither will the probable Republican candidate. In addition, any candidate will have to deal with demographic shifts and presidential year turnout, both trends favoring Democrats.
Murphy may also face an expensive primary, as liberal stalwart – and millionaire — U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson is considering entering the race.