CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Here in the land of hanging chads, where a recent poll shows the presidential race in a dead heat, you might expect incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson to be feeling some reelection pressure.
Instead, during the latest congressional recess, the courtly two-term senator and former astronaut met with college students, held a tiny news conference to tout a crackdown on identity theft and hosted a business roundtable in Cocoa Beach. There were no campaign rallies. No stump speeches, no scurrying across the huge state in search of the quintessential swing voters.
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.”
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.
But Mack’s introduction to the world of statewide politics has been rocky at best and has had national Republicans fretting that the road to the Senate majority will have to wind through states other than Florida.
For one thing, there’s Mack’s colorful past, which has unspooled since he entered the race in November.
Though Mack has served in Congress since 2005 and was in Florida’s statehouse before that, LeMieux has mocked him for an earlier stint as an executive for the Florida-based restaurant chain Hooters.
He also has highlighted Mack’s involvement in two bar fights and two road-rage incidents when he was in his 20s.
And aggressive state media have found evidence that Mack, 44, now running on promises to restore fiscal discipline to Washington, struggled to pay bills during a divorce in 2005; he says the troubles were quickly resolved when the matter was settled.
“If he’s the nominee, he’ll lose. Because it will become a character contest and Connie Mack can’t win a character contest with anyone,” said LeMieux, who has labeled Mack the Charlie Sheen of Florida politics. LeMieux said his biggest challenge will be to convince voters that Mack is not the same as his highly regarded father.
Mack said LeMieux’s attacks on his past will be dismissed by voters as election-year mudslinging, the complaints of a “desperate candidate.”
“I think that is the narrative that people are trying to create,” Mack said of reports of Republican worry. “But it’s not what we’re hearing or feeling on the ground in Florida. We’ve got a lot of momentum.”
Mack may benefit from some level of backlash among conservatives who think they compromised too much at the top of the ticket in the name of electability.
Mack has the support of the Tea Party of Florida, a registered third party, whose leaders say he is the most fiscally conservative option.
“Our members are mad as they can be about how Herman Cain was treated,” said John Long, chairman of the Tea Party of Florida, which had been preparing to endorse Cain when he dropped out of the presidential race after allegations about his personal life.
“They feel cheated by that process. They seem absolutely adamant that it won’t happen again. But if it does happen, they don’t want to be a part of it,” Long said.
But Mack’s problems extend beyond a long-ago misspent youth. He bobbled a central bit of Republican messaging earlier this year — telling a tea party forum in Orlando that he believed a budget plan written by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and embraced by the party as a responsible path to fiscal sanity was a “joke.”
Later his campaign said he supported Ryan’s efforts but believed the plan took too long to bring the national budget into balance. In a recent interview, he said he would have voted against the plan had he been in Washington to do so. His absence for the key vote because of campaigning has been another point of contention.
“I go back and forth,” he said. “I probably would have voted no. There are a lot of reforms that I like. But I have a problem with the idea that this budget is not going to balance for 28 years.”
And a late start to the race means his coffers are thin — he raised about $1 million last quarter, but he has burned through cash quickly. He now has just $1.3 million on hand to fight a tough primary and then battle Nelson.
University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith said the cumulative effect has been to leave Republicans wondering if they can “trust Connie Mack to be a serious adult.”
Mack’s dicey start would seem to create an opening for LeMieux, who served 16 months in the Senate after the resignation of Sen. Mel Martinez (R) in 2009.
That’s an especially difficult conundrum in a party whose grass roots have become suspicious of their leaders, convinced they often say one thing to get elected but act differently in office. LeMieux raised less than a third of Mack’s haul last quarter.
“The Republican establishment hasn’t really embraced either of these guys — they seem pretty unimpressed,” Smith said.
And as Mack and LeMieux bloody each other, Nelson has been free so far to stay above the fray.
“I have always said that the best politics is just to try to do a good job. And while they’re all concentrating on themselves, I’m going to continue trying to do a good job,” he said after a recent event in Coral Gables.
Asked whether the Republicans would make tough opponents, he merely smiled and said he would take on an opponent after one is chosen in the August primary.
“Let’s just wait and see,” he said.
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.