George LeMieux would not have made it to the U.S. Senate in 2009 but for his long friendship with Charlie Crist, the governor who appointed him to the job after Mel Martinez resigned. Now that LeMieux is running for the Republican Senate nomination in 2012, that long friendship looks like his biggest liability.
Crist, the moderate Republican-turned independent, is reviled by much of the conservative base, and there are few people more closely associated with him than LeMieux, his former chief of staff and so-called "maestro."
"It's like the Titanic as far as the albatross that will be hung around George LeMieux's neck,'' said Mike Hanna, a Republican strategist in Tallahassee. "When it was cool to be a populist, George LeMieux had no problem supporting Charlie Crist and all that he did. As soon as the political winds changed, George became a conservative."
LeMieux, 41, made his long-expected candidacy official Tuesday, declaring that excessive spending and borrowing is threatening to destroy America. The primary to challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson appears to be an unpredictable and wide-open race shaping up to include Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner and retired Col. Mike McCallister. Orlando lawyer Will McBride, who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006, also is looking at running.
"If we don't rein in the spending, we're going to melt the economy. I can't stand by on the sidelines and let that happen," said LeMieux, noting that he is the only candidate with Senate experience but wasn't in Washington long enough "to be part of the problem." In a sparsely attended Facebook town hall, LeMieux also declared himself the only Republican in the field who never voted to raise taxes.
But skittishness about the Crist connection is clear, with LeMieux's campaign website, georgeforflorida.com, barely mentioning the ex-governor's name. (The website also emphasizes "George" over the harder to pronounce "LeMieux.")
"Look, I'm my own man, and I have a record,'' LeMieux told the St. Petersburg Times, noting that he endorsed Marco Rubio for Senate as soon as Crist dropped from the GOP. "I showed my stripes and I showed my principles when I was in Washington. … The best way to evaluate what George LeMieux's positions are is to look at my record on the job."
Crist did not respond to a request to comment.
LeMieux earned plenty of conservative praise and sometimes grudging respect for his 16-month tenure in the Senate, where he denounced deficit spending, seized on the growing distaste for political pork and joined in the criticism of President Barack Obama.
"Given the umbilical cord that tied him to Crist and his role in the entire (ex-GOP chairman) Jim Greer debacle, I used to be one of the people calling him 'the little French man' and dead-set against him,'' said Republican consultant Ana Navarro of Miami. "But I admit, he impressed me with his work ethic and effectiveness in his brief time in the Senate."
LeMieux was once such a Crist admirer that he thought there was no limit to Crist's political reach. Former Republican Party of Florida chairman Tom Slade recalled getting a phone call from LeMieux after publicly criticizing Crist.
"He said, 'You've made a terrible mistake. He's young, he's vibrant. He's got a great future ahead of him.' I said, 'What kind of future is that? He said, 'Well the White House.' "
Still, Slade thinks LeMieux's Crist problem is overstated, noting the governor remains popular in some areas of Florida. And, he said, "LeMieux washed an awful lot of Crist off in Washington."
Pasco County Republican state committee member Bill Bunting said LeMieux received a rousing reception from party activists during a recent dinner, and that "nobody holds any grudges against people as long they separated themselves from Charlie."
But the man who declared himself a "Charlie Crist Republican" also has displayed his former boss' shape-shifting.
In 2006, LeMieux told the Times how closely he and Crist worked together on policy matters: "He's been the senior partner and I've been the junior partner," LeMieux said then. "We make decisions together."
On Tuesday, LeMieux downplayed his role in shaping such policies as Crist's support for Obama's federal stimulus package and for a cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gas emissions.
"When you work for someone else, you do the best you can to influence that person to your point of view, but they're the decisionmaker in that scenario,'' he said.
Likewise, LeMieux entered the Senate openly bashing Rubio, then a very distant threat.
"As time passes, the truth is going to come out about Marco Rubio that he's no conservative," LeMieux told the Times in September 2009, listing among other things Rubio's support for a controversial property tax cut that would have raised the sales tax.
But after Crist's support had washed away, LeMieux began to distance himself and endorsed Rubio. It saved his political aspirations but struck some as coldly opportunistic.
"George has to stand by the governor, and if he fails to do so, he'll make Brutus look like a Boy Scout," Republican strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich said at the time. "George is Charlie's Frankenstein. He needs to remember who made him."
LeMieux has many contacts in Washington and Florida, but he is untested as a fundraiser and a race could require at least $20 million between the primary and general election.
He is still assembling his campaign team but has hired well-regarded pollster and senior consultant Jon Lerner, whose previous conservative clients have included South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
The Harris Group, which worked on Rick Scott's campaign for governor, will do social media, and Ann Marie Bravo, a John McCain campaign alum, will oversee fundraising.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.