Hard to imagine, but maybe Washington's political pros have a better handle on Florida's sleepy U.S. Senate race than Florida's most experienced politicos.
Because the national Republican strategists and fundraisers determined to gain control of the U.S. Senate have already pumped in more than $9 million for TV ads hammering Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. They see Florida as a prime pickoff opportunity — and they are right.
U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV on Tuesday night officially became the Republican nominee after trouncing his little-known, cash-strapped primary challengers.
With Congress' approval ratings at record lows, and voters fed up with the status quo, it's a tough time to be a politician like Nelson, 69, who has been in public office since he was elected to the Legislature in 1972. He is a fifth-generation Floridian with a knack for performing better than most Democrats in conservative North Florida, but that may be tougher with the polarized electorate of 2012.
What's more, he must contend with new campaign finance laws that likely mean he will be out-spent.
"If you wanted to make a profile of the typical candidate who's been having problems in elections across the country, Bill would fit that profile," said Al Cardenas, head of the American Conservative Union and former chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
Still, the perception among Florida's political elites, the ones who know Nelson and Mack best, is that Nelson remains the overwhelming favorite.
In a Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll conducted this week with 117 of Florida's savviest political minds, more than 8 in 10 predicted Nelson beats Mack in November. Two-thirds of Republicans surveyed picked Nelson as the likely winner, 47 out of 48 Democrats predicted Nelson, and all seven registered independents predicted Nelson. Participants included political operatives, fundraisers, lobbyists and activists.
Those results probably say more about how Florida's political class sees Mack's campaign to date — tired sound bites about "lockstep liberal" Nelson, little grass roots enthusiasm, and knee-jerk attacks on the media — than it does about the actual political landscape.
This is a neck-and-neck race for a top prize in the country's biggest battleground state. Yet it's hard to find anyone especially interested in the race.
"It's because people don't particularly care for either candidate very much. I've heard that over and over," said Republican fundraiser Scott Peelen of Orlando, calling Nelson's vote for the federal health care law "reprehensible" and "unpatriotic" and describing Mack, 45, as coming across as "a kid . . . with a reputation like Dennis the Menace."
Still, it would be a sea change in Florida if Nelson lost, and he faces his toughest election in at least 18 years. Two signs that he knows it: He dispatched his chief of staff, Pete Mitchell, to Orlando to manage the campaign. And he recently launched a blistering attack ad against Mack:
"Florida, meet Connie Mack IV. A promoter for Hooters with a history of bar room brawling, altercations and road rage. A big spender with a trail of debts, liens and unpaid bills. He has one of the worst attendance records in Congress this year but he still voted to end Medicare as we know it."
Mack produced a video response to the tough Nelson ad: "Even if it were all true, and it's not, who cares? . . . I want to talk about what really matters — fixing our economy, creating jobs and tackling our deficit. Bill Nelson, like a typical career politician, wants to talk about Hooters and what I did as a kid."
Unloading so early on Mack was necessary, Nelson's campaign manager said, given the barrage of ads that had been hitting Nelson for months.
"When you've had almost $10 million of distortions and super PAC money spent against you, Bill felt the need to respond back and define him," Mitchell said.
Financial resources are part of the reason for Nelson's vulnerability. He has raised $13.9 million, compared to $3.3 million for Mack. But the Supreme Court has opened the door to unlimited individual and corporate contributions to third-party groups, and so-called super PACs are taking full advantage. The Karl Rove-founded group Crossroads GPS has committed at least $16.4 million on TV ads against Nelson.
"Mack hasn't been able to raise a lot of money in Florida, and having (super PACs) to basically control his message could become a problem for him,'' said Democratic consultant Robin Rorapaugh of Broward County. "Bill Nelson is a fairly noncontroversial politician, and for a senator that is sometimes a good thing. The base will vote for him because they're coming out for the presidential campaign, and independents like noncontroversial politicians."
Mack skated to the nomination Tuesday largely on the strength of name recognition. His father, Connie Mack III, served as senator from 1989 to 2001, and his great-grandfather, Connie Mack I, was a celebrated baseball manager. The primary's predictable conclusion, followed a tumultuous year of campaigning.
First, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos looked like the heavy favorite against former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner. Haridopolos' campaign fizzled, however, and Mack entered the race last fall. Then Hasner dropped out to run for Congress, and ultimately LeMieux dropped out as he struggled for traction against Mack.
The question now is whether Mack can come close to his father's political appeal. He refused to debate credible primary challengers, LeMieux and former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, R-Melbourne, a late entrant with little money. He also avoided joint appearances with other Republican candidates, after finishing last in "straw poll" votes from activists who heard all the candidates speak.
Nelson was blessed in his last two Senate bids with weak Republican opponents, Bill McCollum and Katherine Harris. Mack's political skills remain uncertain, but he has a potent name and a host of advantages Harris and McCollum lacked.
This could be the sleeper race of 2012 in Florida — either because it's a nail-biter or because both candidates put people to sleep.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]