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Republicans Line Up to Take Down Bill Nelson

November 4, 2010 - 7:00pm

Next up: Bill Nelson.

After the Republican wave washed over Florida this fall, the two-term senator is the only statewide Democrat left standing. And his days may be numbered.

"That thing on Bill Nelson's back? It's a big, fat target," says Rick Wilson, a veteran state Republican consultant. "Bill Nelson is precisely the kind of weak Democrat the GOP will be after in 2012."

Across the country, moderate and "blue dog" Democrats were killed off in droves. The mortality rate was especially high in conservative and swing states.

Those descriptions stick to both Nelson and Florida like a wet Ron-Jon T-shirt.

Nelson made syndicated columnist Fred Barnes' top-10 list of Democratic senators in trouble in 2012. Barnes says Nelson & Co. will be under intense pressure from both left and right -- and could well end up fatally wounded in the crossfire.

If Nelson hangs with Democratic leaders, he may find himself out on an island because other fearful Dems might cut deals with the rising Republican minority.

"With Democratic allies, Republicans will have operational control of the Senate more often than Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama will," Barnes theorizes.

If Nelson tacks rightward, he may find himself running into a Republican field that's already starting to form.

Whether Nelson plays the proud liberal or the pragmatic compromiser, Wilson believes the former astronaut is political toast.

"He's tired, he's dull, he's mostly irrelevant. Quick, name a single legislative accomplishment that defines Bill Nelson," Wilson says.

"Florida just proved that it has little place for Obama cheerleaders and toadies."


Starting with interim Sen. George LeMieux, several Republicans are maneuvering to take Nelson's seat.

LeMieux, who leaves office in January, already has a campaign website up, and he has noticeably stepped up his personal appearances around Florida.

Though he hasn't talked directly about the 2012 campaign (yet), he began currying favor with the state Republican Party when he endorsed Marco Rubio in this year's Senate race. He's also worked his way into the Rick Scott administration, landing a spot on the incoming governor's advisory team.

Still, LeMieux carries troublesome baggage. Appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to fill Mel Martinez's vacated Senate seat last year, he was Crist's former chief of staff and longtime confidant before the governor bolted the party.

The Fort Lauderdale attorney also had close ties to ex-GOP chairman Jim Greer, the disgraced party boss who was arrested on fraud and money laundering charges earlier this year.

"LeMieux was the promoter, defender and protector of the corrupt Republican Party of Florida chairman and took $350,000 in party funds from Greer to line his pockets. LeMieux in 2012? No thanks," Roger Stone, a longtime national political consultant, told Sunshine State News.

"We'll see if LeMieux can get the stink off him," said another GOP campaign adviser speaking on condition of anonymity.

From a constituent-services standpoint, neither Nelson nor LeMieux has impressed Eugene Benson, a Vero Beach political activist who corresponds frequently with both senators' offices.

"I find their staffs to be excessively wordy, slow and useless," says Benson, who describes himself as independent. "Neither one has been a very effective legislator."

Another likely GOP contender -- at least in his own mind -- is U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers. Son of former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack III, he currently is seeking to chair the House Republican Policy Committee.

But Mack's nuanced position on immigration, to name just one soft policy stand, raises the specter of a moderate like Sen. Lindsey Graham, the notorious accommodator from South Carolina. As the 2010 elections showed, politically correct posturing neither enthuses the GOP base nor inspires the ranks of independents.

"He appears to be a RINO (Republican in Name Only) in many ways," one unimpressed veteran campaign adviser said of Mack. "This whole notion of primogeniture needs to be over. Just because daddy was a senator doesn't mean you need to be."

Another possibility is state Rep. Adam Hasner. Serving as majority leader, the Delray Beach Republican is a reliable fiscal conservative and he could contend for Democratic Jewish votes in Southeast Florida.

Yet Hasner's lack of statewide name recognition could hamper his effort to mount a serious primary campaign.

Two stronger prospective challengers to Nelson include state Senate President Mike Haridopolos and newly elected U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster.

Telegenic and energetic, Haridopolos is a rising star in the party, a relentless campaigner and a bona fide conservative who would draw a sharp philosphical contrast to Nelson. The Merritt Island Republican's biggest drawback could be logistical.

"Can you do a Senate presidency and a U.S. Senate race? That's to be determined," mused a GOP operative in Tallahassee.

Webster appears to have the strongest resume of all. A former speaker of the Florida House and skilled lawmaker, the Winter Park Republican handily defeated U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, this fall.

Though vastly underfunded and under constant attack by the Democrats' bombastic bete noir, Webster ran a positive, effective campaign that, for once, left Grayson speechless.

A devout Baptist and a staunch fiscal conservative, Webster was pitch-perfect for 2010, and could be even more appealing to Floridians after battling Democrats in Congress for two years.

"He's a real conservative, and he's not part of the Tallahassee mess," a South Florida-based Republican consultant said of Webster. Seven years younger than Nelson, who also served in the Florida Legislature, Webster has compiled a far longer list of legislative accomplishments.

A wild card in the deck could be the Republican Party's biggest name of all -- Jeb Bush. If the popular former governor wanted the Senate seat, he surely would breeze through the GOP primary.

But Bush, who helped engineer Rubio's winning Senate bid, has expressed no interest in joining the World's Greatest Deliberative Body himself. Instead, insiders tell Sunshine State News that Bush holds aspirations for higher office, located at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., in 2016.

Noting the prevailing political winds, Kenneth Quinnell, director of the Florida Progressive Coalition, suggests that a middle-of-the-roader like Nelson could end up as road kill.

"His record is closer to people like (Democratic Reps.) Allen Boyd and Suzanne Kosmas, who were rejected by Florida voters Tuesday, than it is to Debbie Wasserman Schultz or Kathy Castor, who easily won re-election. If Nelson doesn't do something to excite the Democratic base, he could find himself joining Boyd and Kosmas," Quinnell said.


Still, Quinnell added, "Incumbency is very powerful and Nelson has shown an ability to raise large sums of money in the past, so he will be competitive against anyone.

"It's hard to see Nelson losing to people with little statewide popularity and extreme records, such as Adam Hasner or Daniel Webster. But more well-known candidates like Jeb Bush or George LeMieux could give him a run for his money."

And then there's the specter of Charlie Crist.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he jumped in the race as a No Party Affiliation candidate again, either, complicating things further for Nelson," Quinnell said.

Seth McKee, a political science professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said, "I think it's safe to say that Republicans will not be blessed with an electoral environment in 2012 that is even close to as favorable as 2010. The dirty work of governance will take a toll on the public's opinion of a Republican House majority.

"Assuming President Obama seeks re-election, and there isn't any reason to expect he won't, the composition of the voting electorate will be more Democratic in comparison to this year. The percentage of African-American and Hispanic voters in Florida will be higher," McKee noted.

McKee believes that Nelson's moderate positions, even his speech patterns, will work to the senator's advantage in 2012.

"Republicans will have a difficult time convincing voters he's really a liberal. Furthermore, and this shouldn't be understated, Bill Nelson has a pronounced Southern drawl that makes him appear conservative even though he isn't."

The USF professor expects that by 2012, Nelson will draw only "a weak Republican opponent," as he did in 2006, when he crushed the controversial Katherine Harris.

But 2012 is just around the corner, politically speaking. And with the state Democratic Party demoralized and in disarray, Florida Republicans boast a superior organization and a far deeper bench, with plenty of players eager to knock off Nelson, the Democrats' last man standing.


Contact Kenric Ward at or at (772) 801-5341.

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