National conservative groups may get one of their first-choice recruits this year in Florida's open Senate race, if Rep. Ron DeSantis follows through on his initial interest in replacing 2016 presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
DeSantis, a 36-year-old Iraq War veteran and founding member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said in a statement Tuesday that he will consider running to replace Rubio next year. "As it became clear that Senator Rubio was likely to run for president, I received encouragement to consider running for the Senate," DeSantis said, adding that he and his wife "will use the next several weeks to discuss the race with our friends and supporters and will make a decision in short order."
Conservative groups cheered DeSantis's interest immediately, seeing an opportunity to promote one of their champions from the House into one of the few open Senate seats in the 2016 elections. The Madison Project, Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, and the Club for Growth all quickly praised DeSantis, with some announcing that if he chose to run, he would have their support. Many of them backed Rubio, who announced Monday that he will run for president, in 2010.
"Rep. DeSantis has been a stalwart supporter of limited government and pro-economic-growth fiscal policies in the House, as we expected him to be when the Club for Growth PAC supported his initial House candidacy in 2012," said David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, in a statement Tuesday morning. "He would make a terrific U.S. Senator. The Club will examine this race like it does all others, taking a close look at the records and policy views of all the candidates before making an endorsement decision."
"With Sen. Rubio leaving the Senate next year, it's extremely important for conservatives in Florida to elect a principled leader to replace him," said Ken Cuccinelli, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund. "We're looking at all of the candidates, but if Congressman Ron DeSantis decides to run, we will seriously consider supporting his campaign."
"Ron is one of those guys that if he makes the decision to run, you'd definitely see the conservative groups coalesce around, much like we did in 2012 when he ran for the House," Drew Ryun, political director of the Madison Project, said in an interview Tuesday morning. "I definitely see him as a marquee candidate for the conservative movement in the 2016 cycle."
"It is crucial that conservatives join together to replace Sen. Rubio with a committed conservative with the courage to fight for limited government and free-market principles," FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon said in a statement ahead of DeSantis's announcement. "DeSantis is exactly the kind of courageous conservative we need in the U.S. Senate."
Leaders of these groups say recruiting DeSantis to run would be significant for the conservative movement, which failed to take down a single sitting senator last cycle. After hard-fought losses in a number of states like Mississippi and Kansas, they've said they plan to retool for 2016 by going after stronger recruits, and primarily open races, on the Senate side.
"This would be a huge deal in an election cycle that doesn't have too many pickup opportunities on the Republican map," said Daniel Horowitz, senior editor of the Conservative Review. "An open Florida Senate seat could potentially be one of the biggest opportunities for conservatives to have their voice heard this cycle."
A dynamic candidate like DeSantis, combined with the lack of an establishment front-runner in Florida's open race, makes this race especially appealing. After weeks of hype and telling donors he was running, the early choice for establishment Republicans, state CFO Jeff Atwater, withdrew his name from contention last Saturday.
More than a half-dozen other candidates are still considering the race. DeSantis's most likely competition at the moment appears to be the lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera. Lopez-Cantera is regarded as Rubio's favored candidate because of their long-standing personal relationship, meaning DeSantis could go up against the chosen successor of one of the movement's previous heroes.
Still, the outside groups say they prefer a candidate with a voting record, and they're attracted to DeSantis's impressive military background.
"The conundrum for the outside conservative groups is finding legitimate candidates that actually have a chance to win to pour resources into," said Ryun. "Given that there are rare opportunities, I don't see how other outside groups don't jump in behind Ron if he winds up running."