Trey Radel is coming back to Washington. But whether his return will be brief or extended is an open question.
Under pressure to resign following a drug arrest last fall, the Republican congressman from Florida has vowed to stay in office. But several other names are being bandied about as possible contenders for his seat -- either if it becomes open or if he opts to run for reelection -- and supporters of a former rival have even started a super PAC that has collected big money.
And then there's the question of how much Radel's image and reputation have been damaged in the eyes of voters. In short, the road back to sure political footing is looking very,very tough for him.
"The state of play is this: It is questionable how much money Radel can raise, as most, if not all, of his local donors have abandoned him and the smart money in D.C. will probably hang back and see if he can pull himself out of the fire," said Tim Baker, a Florida Republican strategist.
Radel announced Thursday that he would return to Congress next week after undergoing a substance abuse rehabilitation program. The congressman was arrested for cocaine possession last fall. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor drug-possession charge and is on probation.
Despite calls for him to step down, Radel, who is in his first term, has shown no signs he's considering the idea. He reiterated his commitment to serving in Congress last month, even as the chairman of the state Republican Party and local GOP leaders called for him to step down.
"I look forward to getting back to work next week representing my neighbors in Southwest Florida as they face the burdens of Obamacare, a jobless recovery, and a federal government that continues to spend more than it takes in," Radel said in a statement Thursday.
The 19th district runs from Fort Myers down to Naples in the southwestern part of the state. Its heavily conservative tilt -- Mitt Romney won nearly 61 percent of the vote there in the 2012 presidential election -- means that the real threat to Radel's job will come in the GOP primary, scheduled for Aug. 26.
Radel, a former TV news reporter, won 30 percent of the primary vote in a crowded field in 2012 -- hardly a command performance. And he may face some familiar faces if he decides to pursue another term. Second-place finisher Chauncey Goss is mulling a bid. Another possibility is former state Rep. Paige Kreegel, who took about 18 percent of the vote in the 2012 primary. A super PAC funded by Kreegel's friends has already pulled in more that a $1 million, which could be enough to entice him to run again. An aide to the PAC says it is not focused on one candidate or opposing Radel.
Also in the GOP conversation is former congressman Connie Mack. Mack ran for the Senate in 2012, losing to Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson after running a lackluster campaign.
None of these Republicans are viewed as blue chip contenders -- meaning it's conceivable that Radel could survive a challenge from one or more of them, despite being weighed down by personal matters.
State Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, however, is seen as a bigger threat. She has the ability to raise big money and a familiarity with the district that would make her a top GOP contender.
"I think if Benacquisto runs, she wins the primary handily, even if Mack and Radel were both in," said Baker, who worked on Benacquisito's 2010 campaign.
Radel has not committed to running for a second term, and his team declined to comment when asked whether he will run again. An aide pointed to his remark from December that politics was the furthest thing from his mind.
But sooner or later, Radel is going to have to make up his mind. And if he decides to go for another term, it appears his path would not be a smooth one.