Part of Nelson’s leisurely pace can be explained by the fact that Florida Republicans will be occupied for months longer with a nasty and expensive primary. The rest of the explanation may be that even some Republicans are starting to believe that whoever emerges from the GOP primary fight may be too seriously flawed to put up the kind of campaign that would threaten Nelson’s bid for a third term.
“This race should be much more competitive than I think it is or will be,” said Chris Ingram, a GOP consultant from Tampa. “We’ll be calling him ‘senator’ for another six years. . . . He keeps getting the JV’s third squad as opponents.”
Challengers at the ready
Leading the list of Nelson’s possible opponents are Rep. Connie Mack, a four-term congressman with a stellar name but a checkered past, and George S. LeMieux, who earned high marks from Republicans by briefly serving Florida as a U.S. senator but who may be unable to shed his unhelpful ties to the man who appointed him to that job, former Republican governor Charlie Crist.
In addition, Nelson is sitting on $9.5 million in campaign cash, far more than any of his potential Republican challengers. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has announced it has so far booked ad time in six states, a sign of its top targets. Florida was not among them.
The GOP’s dilemma, in Florida of all places, explains in part why the path to a new Republican majority in the Senate is now looking trickier than it appeared after the party emphatically swept the House in 2010.
A late March poll showed Nelson with an eight-point edge, a shift from polls in January and November that showed a nearly even race. Nelson’s edge has widened even as polls have showed a tightening race in Florida at the presidential level.
Nelson’s Republican opponents insist he is hobbled by his ties to President Obama and is deeply exposed in a state where the economy has been especially weak.
“Senator Nelson is very vulnerable because he continues to side with Obama over the desires of the people of the state of Florida,” said Mack, the son of highly respected former Florida senator.
Mack, the great-grandson of a baseball Hall of Famer and the husband of Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), has been building up steam in the nomination race against lesser-known Republicans LeMieux and Mike McCalister, a former Army colonel.
He has picked up endorsements from fellow members of Congress and former Florida attorney general Bill McCollum. He’s raising money faster than LeMieux and, in a near endorsement, Mitt Romney, the party’s presumed presidential candidate, once announced him at an event as the state’s next senator.