Jeff Atwater passed on running for the U.S. Senate in 2012 and did so again earlier this year but now his name is resurfacing as a possible candidate.
Chief Financial Officer Atwater has a long background in both the private and the public sectors, serving as president and CEO for Barnett Bank in key areas before leading Riverside National Bank in parts of South Florida.
First elected to the Florida House in 2000, Atwater’s rise in Tallahassee was impressive. In 2002, he came out of nowhere to defeat Democrat Bob Butterworth, well-known for his service as state attorney general, to win a seat in the Florida Senate. Once in the upper chamber, Atwater propelled up the leadership ladder, eventually serving as Senate president after the 2008 elections.
Setting his eyes on state office, Atwater cruised to the Republican CFO nomination in 2010 with little difficulty, building an impressive war chest and campaign operation. Democrats had a credible candidate in Loranne Ausley, who tried to peck away at Riverside National being taken over by the feds and Atwater’s record in the state Senate. Nothing worked for her and Atwater destroyed her in the general election. Things proved even easier for Atwater in 2014 as he utterly routed the Democrat, winning a bigger victory than his fellow Republicans holding statewide office.
Since then, Atwater’s name has surfaced as a possible future gubernatorial candidate for Republicans in 2018 or as a possible Senate candidate. Atwater’s name got some buzz as a possible Republican challenger to Bill Nelson last year but soon after he closed the door on the idea.
A proven winner who has triumphed twice at the statewide level, Atwater makes a lot of sense if he wants to run for the Senate and avoid a showdown with Adam Putnam in 2018 in the gubernatorial primary. Atwater’s great strength is being well known, especially when compared to the candidates already running in the primary. The Florida Chamber of Commerce released a poll last week which showed Atwater out front even though he isn’t in the race.
The current field of candidates are mostly unknowns. Ron DeSanits has little name recognition outside his Northeast Florida homebase and some Republicans in Washington think he’s too conservative to win the general election. David Jolly was elected to Congress last year and conservatives have doubts about him over his support of same-sex marriage, the Obama administration’s Cuba policy and his support of John Boehner. Carlos Lopez-Cantera is barely known despite being lieutenant governor. Having never run for office before,Todd Wilcox is even less known. Bill McCollum is thinking about getting in the race and has strong name recognition but he has failed in his past Senate bids and his gubernatorial campaign. Atwater is head and shoulders above these candidates.
To run in Florida, a candidate needs money. Atwater has never had problems raising funds and should be able to blow out the field in the money chase if he gets in.
He has been focused more on Tallahassee than Washington during his political career, but he would have a good shot if he wants to run for the Senate. Jolly’s already raising doubts though, saying Atwater has done this before. If Atwater’s serious about a Senate bid, he should get in as soon as possible and erase memories of his previous musings. Saint Petersblog is over the target on this one: the longer Atwater plays the waiting game, the more damage he does the GOP and himself.
Tallahassee based political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis exclusively for Sunshine State News.