Despite months of behind-the-scenes jockeying as Sen. Marco Rubio prepared a run for president, Florida Republicans are still a long way from sorting out who will be charged with protecting Rubio's seat in 2016.
Rubio's official announcement Monday that he would pursue a bid for the White House instead of reelection was no great revelation to an eager collection of up-and-coming Republicans—but state CFO Jeff Atwater's weekend announcement that he won't run for Senate did surprise, underlining the uncertainty for the GOP.
By Monday afternoon, Rep. Ron DeSantis was preparing a statement on the Senate race, and allies of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera said he was "95 percent there" on his own bid (though he wouldn't announce a campaign until after the legislative session). Those two candidates would set up, at minimum, a primary contest between a Club for Growth-backed, second-term congressman in DeSantis, and a close friend and ally of Rubio in Lopez-Cantera.
But the list doesn't stop there.
Even after Atwater and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced last week that they'd pass on the race, at least a half dozen other Republicans had their names floated as "considering" or "interested" in the race. And Atwater's surprise withdrawal Saturday spurred a host of potential candidates to raise their hands higher.
Over the weekend, Rep. Tom Rooney said Atwater's decision to sit out the race made him think "a lot harder" about his potential candidacy, as did former Sen. George LeMieux. Republicans also are reportedly courting Rep. David Jolly, who they say retains star power among donors after his upset victory in 2014. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who also has expressed interest in the race (while saying he won't make any moves soon), would bring a net worth of more than $40 million and additional fundraising bona fides to the table.
Most notably, there is 35-year-old former state House Speaker Will Weatherford, who has stayed quiet since Atwater's announcement. He said in March that it was too soon for him to make any moves. But Republicans and even some Democrats in the state agree that he would enter the race with formidable advantages over the rest of the field.
"If Will Weatherford gets into any statewide race: Katy, bar the door," said Florida Republican strategist Adam Goodman. "If he decided he wanted to go after this, he'd be formidable. When he finished his two years as Speaker, Will Weatherford had checked every box for conservative credentials and effective leadership. Moving forward, he's all upside."
Democratic donor John Morgan called Weatherford the "real superstar" on the Republican bench who could cause problems his party's own wunderkind candidate, Rep. Patrick Murphy. Weatherford did not return questions emailed over the weekend and isn't considered likely to enter the campaign soon, if he decides to run.
Lopez-Cantera is widely expected to get Gov. Rick Scott's backing after leading the Scott campaign's Hispanic outreach in 2014. There's also the prospect of behind-the-scenes, if not outright, support from Rubio. He also just came off of a 2014 race in which he led the campaign's Hispanic outreach, speaking to Hispanic-heavy communities up and down the state's Interstate 4 corridor.
Hispanic Republican leaders suggest Lopez-Cantera could build a coalition among Hispanic voters, who are more likely to turn out in a presidential year, and also draw the support of groups eager to keep Rubio's seat in the hands of a Latino candidate.
"There certainly would be organizations and coalitions that would want to continue having that Latino representation, specifically that conservative Latino coalition, in the U.S. Senate, and they would be active in supporting his candidacy," said Luis Alvarado, a GOP consultant with an expertise in Hispanic politics.
Lopez-Cantera might not, however, inherit the support of the tea-party conservatives who powered Rubio's Senate bid six years ago. Many of them are eagerly looking to DeSantis, a founding member of the House's new conservative Freedom Caucus, as a potential standard bearer. He's one of the fresher faces in the state's congressional delegation, with a resume that includes Yale, Harvard Law, and a Bronze Star from Navy service in the Iraq War.
"It would be a coup if conservatives could recruit him to run," said Daniel Horowitz, senior editor of the Conservative Review. "By any measure he's among the top conservatives in the House. He's someone who would command a deep degree of respect and trust from across the state."
The campaign to replace Rubio may start in earnest as early as Tuesday. But its result will likely be unclear for some time.
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