After a big win in 2010 and little expected in the way of Democratic opposition in the coming election, Jeff Atwater is poised to be something of an afterthought in 2014. That being the case, he can use his spot on the political undercard as he runs for a second term as Floridas CFO, setting the stage for a future run for office.
Unlike Florida Republicans like Adam Putnam and Will Weatherford who are in their 30s, Atwater, at 55, doesnt have the luxury of decades of opportunities to run for higher office. Hes had his chances so far but passed on entering the Republican primary to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson last year and has shown no interest in challenging Gov. Rick Scott in the primaries next year.
Atwater has quietly been hard at work getting ready for 2014. He crushed Democrat Loranne Ausley in 2010 to become CFO and Democrats arent rushing to challenge him next year. But there has been some talk that Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, could make a bid. But Waldman, who has to give up his House seat in 2014 due to term limits, could have other priorities and has already filed to run for a state Senate seat in 2016.
So far, Atwater has raised more than $195,100 in cash and has more than $180,000 on hand. His campaign has heavily used in-kind donations, racking up more than $366,500 of them. He should be able to rely on more donations and the GOP machinery in 2014.
Its easy to underestimate Atwater because he is one of the least flashy politicians in Florida, but he has an impressive record of electoral victories. During his career as a banker, he took to politics, getting elected to the North Palm Beach Village Council in 1993 before heading to the Florida House in 2000. Two years later, Atwater ran for the state Senate and drew a major Democratic opponent in former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who had won four statewide elections in blowouts. Atwater defeated Butterwoth 55 percent to 45 percent and moved up the Senate leadership, eventually becoming president in 2009 and 2010.
Politicians have often sunk when they try to run for statewide office while leading a legislative body. Just look at Mike Haridopolos attempts to juggle serving as Senate president while running for the U.S. Senate. But Atwater was able to manage the Senate while running for CFO in 2010 and easily dispatched Ausley in the general election.
Its the record of an effective politician who has done well in seizing his opportunities and winning elections. Atwater could have chances for higher office in the years to come. If Marco Rubio is on the Republican ticket in 2016, Atwater could run for his U.S. Senate seat. After passing on challenging Nelson in 2012, Atwater could take him on in 2018 or hope the senator, who will be 76 then, will not seek a fourth term. Atwater could also run for governor in 2018 when either Scott is term-limited or whichever Democrat defeats him in 2014 will be running for a second term.
No surprise considering his banking background, Atwater is a favorite of Floridas business leaders and has kept his ties intact with them. Atwater has also reached out to social and religious conservatives. Calling it a victory for religious freedom, Atwater has been a vocal supporter of Hobby Lobbys successful legal battle to challenge Obamacares contraception mandate.
Atwaters done a good job in remaining a favorite of conservatives of all stripes, which should help him in 2016 or 2018. Look for Atwater to use his 2014 campaign to reach out to as many Florida voters as possible as he looks down the road to other elections.
Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.