Two months into a fledgling Senate bid, David Jolly is taking a sharp-elbowed approach to Florida’s GOP primary as he tries to carve out enough space to win in a crowded field.
Casting himself as the consensus-building contrast to the tea-party choice in the race to succeed Marco Rubio in the Senate, Jolly is asking establishment Republicans to invest in an expensive primary battle on his behalf—and taking a few shots at party leadership while he does it.
“At the end of the day, I’d say, if you want to see a Republican be elected to the White House, that Republican has to win the state of Florida,” Jolly said in an interview. And to win Florida, “they need a Senate nominee that can support the top of the ticket,” he continued.
“We have to insist on an honest conversation on what it means to be conservative,” said Jolly. “I’m running against the weak-kneed fake conservatives who … failed to accept the responsibility to govern.”
Jolly was referring to last week’s intra-GOP conflict over a new government-spending bill, a vote that put him and Rep. Ron DeSantis, perhaps his main primary opponent, on opposite sides. Jolly voted in favor of the bill, which would keep the government open for a limited time, while DeSantis sided with House conservatives, who sought to use the vote to keep the federal government from continuing to fund Planned Parenthood.
Speaker John Boehner’s retirement announcement hung over the proceedings, as did their primary. Jolly loudly praised Boehner after the speaker announced his resignation, though he said he wasn’t sure whether he would have supported Boehner if a confidence vote had come up. But Jolly said the continuing-resolution vote, not his stance on leadership, was all the contrast he needed to make with DeSantis. (Jolly has previously branded himself a “keep-government-open conservative.”)
Ticking off a list of positions he’s taken against party leadership—including opposing a particular Medicare cost-control measure, the recent major trade deal, and even the Republican budget proposal)—Jolly pitched his style of picking only winnable battles as the “governing-conservative” model.
“Frankly, my voting against leadership scores about the same as [Reps. Justin] Amash and [Thomas] Massie,” Jolly said, referring to two of House Republicans’ most frequent rebels against their leadership. “People will often mistake those votes as having voted with Democrats. Actually what I’m doing is voting against the dysfunction of our own team. I’m voting against the dishonesty of our own legislative packages at some times.”
The 41-year old Republican is only a year and a half removed from his first run for elected office, a special House election that drew national attention and heavy interest-group spending to Jolly’s ever-so-slightly Democratic-tilting district. (President Obama carried it twice.) But Jolly has already become a victim of redistricting, thanks to litigation that forced a mid-decade redraw of Florida’s congressional lines and is set to make his district significantly more Democratic. Left with little hope of retaining the seat that once belonged to his boss, former Rep. Bill Young, Jolly immediately began making preparations for a Senate bid.
As Jolly hinted, while his model of breaking with his party has been a fit for his evenly divided congressional district, it’s not one that’s won him any favor with conservative groups. When Jolly joined the Senate race in July, the Club for Growth likened him to Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor of Florida who became a Democrat. The Club, Senate Conservatives Fund, and a handful of tea-party-aligned groups rallied quickly around DeSantis as their candidate in the Senate race, pledging to spend big on his behalf in the primary.
Meanwhile, the GOP groups that could help Jolly, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which played big in Jolly’s first House race, must weigh whether to get involved in a costly primary, given the large number of Republican incumbents they have to defend in the House and Senate in 2016.
The Chamber hasn’t indicated who it might back, if anyone, and DeSantis’s allies have eagerly argued that he could win the blessing of establishment Republicans, too. If so, that could create an outside-money problem for Jolly in a big, expensive state where no Senate candidate starts the race particularly well-known.
“I don’t know who will come in,” said Jolly. “I know control of Senate will be on the line, and frankly there will be a certain fight for the soul of the party in this race and in Indiana,” where the conservative groups have also taken a side in another open-seat Republican Senate primary.
“I’ll let the outside groups determine who they think the best candidate … but again we’ve demonstrated we can win a purple district and I think we can win a purple state on a conservative message,” said Jolly.
Recently, another potential GOP candidate with a potentially similar message may have made Jolly’s path harder. Florida CFO Jeff Atwater, who was once considered Republicans’ Senate frontrunner before surprisingly deciding not to run this summer, mentioned that he might still be interested in running. Atwater has already won two statewide elections in Florida, and his base and Jolly’s overlap.
Jolly remained resolute. “I believe we will continue to run this race at the front of the pack and I don’t believe it makes a difference whether Jeff Atwater gets in or not,” said Jolly, who had at one point been poised to support Atwater’s bid. “Whatever Jeff decides to do plays no factor in my decision.”
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