Republican Candidate Adopts Jeb Bush Super-PAC Strategy for the Senate

Instead of launching his Senate campaign right away, Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera will first meet with donors for a supportive super PAC—like Bush in the presidential race.

Jeb Bush's plan to delay actually entering the 2016 election and instead spend time fundraising and coordinating directly with a friendly super PAC has revolutionized presidential campaign finance. And now, a likely Republican Senate candidate—also from Florida—has adopted the Bush model for his own race.

Allies of Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who told Florida Republican Party leaders over the weekend that he's considering a Senate run, say he will wait to formally announce his candidacy until he's had time to meet with prospective donors via a newly minted super PAC, Reform Washington, and a leadership PAC by the same name.

Thus, like Bush, Lopez-Cantera could solicit unlimited sums of money for a committee that would support him in one of the country's most expensive political races next year. Though his eventual campaign wouldn't be allowed to coordinate with the super PAC, it's possible the outside group could wind up spending more on Lopez-Cantera's behalf to run TV ads in Florida's many expensive media markets.

"Florida is a really big state. I've been all around it," Lopez-Cantera told National Journal in an interview last week. "Having strong voices and those willing to invest in getting that message out to ensure this seat remains Republicans remains important."

Lopez-Cantera, a 41-year old Miami native, close friend of Sen. Marco Rubio, and former four-term state House member, is expected to join a Republican primary race that already includes a sitting congressman, Rep. Ron DeSantis, and has drawn interest from several prominent Florida Republicans. DeSantis ended the first quarter with more than $1.1 million on hand. A likely Democratic contender, Rep. Patrick Murphy, already has raised $1.25 million for his campaign.

DeSantis and Murphy also have super PACs supporting them, but they're only allowed to ask donors to contribute $5,000 per calendar year. (Other allies to their campaigns can ask donors to contribute more than that on their behalf.)

By delaying the launch of his campaign, Lopez-Cantera avoids rules that prohibit federal officeholders and candidates from soliciting unlimited contributions for outside groups. DeSantis, Murphy, and other members of Congress cannot make such asks of donors. (Neither could Rubio, who declared his presidential candidacy relatively early compared to Bush's plans.)

Like the members of Congress, Lopez-Cantera also has a leadership PAC in his name, registered late last week. Once upon a time, only powerful members of Congress formed leadership PACs, plus future presidential candidates looking to finance their long-term political activities.

"This is a model that's uniquely advantageous for people who are not already federal office holders," said the committee's attorney, Charlie Spies, a Washington-based campaign finance lawyer who also helped set up Bush's Right to Rise committees. "For leaders or potential candidates that are considering whether to run, and will have the need for a substantial amount of resources to run, using the model of having both a leadership PAC and a super PAC "¦ gives them the ability to get up to speed and hopefully have resources to support them if they decide to run."

Spies said in the coming weeks Lopez-Cantera would be involved in meetings with potential donors for the Reform Washington groups, "gauging whether the resources are there to independently support him if he decides to run."

Reform Washington was originally set up to support Florida state CFO Jeff Atwater for Senate, but he surprised many by deciding not to run—after which the same machinery landed in Lopez-Cantera's camp. It already has support from a former Mitt Romney fundraiser, Darlene Jordan, to go with an advisory committee of high-level donors such as billionaire car dealer (and Rubio presidential backer) Norman Braman.

"It's a team that set up groups to support Atwater, and when he decided not to run, upon consultation with supporters both political and financial, the team made the decision to shift over and support the lieutenant governor," said Spies. "Now it's about him, and about supporting an electable conservative leader."

Delaying an official entry to the race also has some disadvantages for Lopez-Cantera. For one, he can't call himself a candidate. Speaking to the Republican Party of Florida this past weekend, the lieutenant governor carefully beat around the bush, saying in a speech that he was "strongly considering" a Senate bid.

"This playbook here in Florida, it works," Lopez-Cantera said at the meeting, per The Miami Herald. "So I've been thinking lately: It might be time to take that playbook to Washington, D.C. We need a little bit more Florida in D.C., maybe not so much D.C. in D.C."

Lopez-Cantera also isn't able to hire an official campaign staff to help him manage what's already shaping up to be a top-tier race. Instead, he's had assistance from friends, including longtime Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson.

Said one source with knowledge of the super PAC: "Serious people know a Florida race means real money. ... It's not just having the various committees; it's the timing of [candidates'] rollouts, and the way they help build a state- and nationwide network of donors for the appropriate platforms."

Lopez-Cantera has not set a timeline for his official decision. But, as with Bush, the effort to elect him could already be very well-financed by the time he actually jumps into the race.