Republicans are bracing for a tough 2012 U.S. Senate primary pitting such political heavyweights as a former U.S. senator, a sitting Florida Senate president and the congressman son of a Republican icon.
But to hear a growing number of Republican activists tell it, the candidate to watch is a fellow few Floridians have heard of.
"Absolutely — it's Adam Hasner," said Nancy McGowan, a prominent conservative activist and fundraiser from Jacksonville. "A primary for the most part is determined by the grass roots who look for the leadership they like, and people know Adam as someone who understands public policy, is a tenacious fighter and has the moral courage of his convictions."
The 41-year-old former state House majority leader lacks the statewide profile of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack — the potential field vying to pick off Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida's only statewide Democratic leader. But for years the Boca Raton lawyer has built a conservative network and in recent weeks he has met with activists, fundraisers and political operatives in every corner of the state.
"I think he'll be a fabulous candidate,'' said Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg, former ambassador and finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. "I've followed his career and have a lot of respect for him. He's got a lot of friends and will have a lot of support."
Hasner says only that he's seriously looking at running for the 2012 GOP nomination and has heard lots of encouragement.
A December automated poll by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling found that former Gov. Jeb Bush is the only Republican who would defeat Nelson in 2012. Such early polls mainly reflect name recognition, and between Mack, LeMieux and Hasner, Mack fared best against Nelson, trailing 36 percent to 44 percent (LeMieux trailed by 11, Haridopolos by 12 and Hasner by 16).
Ambition and passion for politics were apparent for years during Hasner's House career, fueling early speculation that he might run for Congress or state attorney general in 2010. However, his wife, former Jeb Bush aide Jillian Hasner, was consumed with running Meg Whitman's California gubernatorial campaign.
Now, speculation centers on a U.S. Senate run, though some Republican rivals whisper Hasner may be merely trying to raise his profile should legislators create a new congressional district in South Florida.
Money matters enormously in a state as large as Florida, and Haridopolos is positioned to raise millions from donors with interests before the Legislature.
But Marco Rubio proved in his Senate primary against Charlie Crist in 2010 that grass-roots support can sometimes trump fundraising, and Hasner has the potential and contacts to raise money from Jewish conservatives across the country.
Handicapping the field
In that Rubio-Crist primary and other Republican races in 2010, conservative credentials proved to be important.
Conservative purity is a key factor again in 2012, and some prospective Republican Senate candidates have specific challenges and some serious blemishes.
Mike Haridopolos: In 2009, Sen. Haridopolos, 40, voted to increase taxes and fees by more than $2 billion, including a $1 surcharge on every pack of cigarettes. In voting for the tax and fee increases he violated a signed pledge to the group Americans for Tax Reform that he would oppose any and all tax increases.
"It's still one of the hardest votes I've made because I want to be as consistent as possible, and that's why I have regrets about it," said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, explaining that he justified the vote at the time because nonsmokers were effectively subsidizing smokers through Medicare expenses. "A tax is a tax,'' he acknowledged.
Hasner voted against the cigarette tax when it first came up but ultimately voted in favor of a budget balanced with that tax and other fee increases.
Connie Mack: Rep. Mack, 43, has not declared his candidacy but thanks to his dad, the former senator, he already enjoys relatively strong name recognition. A Mack hasn't been on Florida's statewide ballot for 17 years, however, and the younger Mack has spent little time courting party activists and donors.
Last year, the Fort Myers Republican was out of step with many conservative voters as a vocal critic of Arizona's immigration law. He went so far as to liken it to Nazi Germany.
A Mack spokesman, David James, dismissed the suggestion that Mack's conservative credentials could be questioned.
"Connie Mack is leading in the polls nicely because he reflects the conservative passions of grass-roots Republicans in Florida — strong on national defense, unwavering on border security and a proven record of opposing spending and taxes throughout government," James said.
George LeMieux: LeMieux, 41, won plenty of praise from conservatives for his 16 months in the U.S. Senate, where he served as a fiscal hawk and deficit-fighter. But LeMieux made his name as an aide to Gov. Crist — "I'm a Charlie Crist Republican," he crowed shortly before Crist appointed him to the Senate — and Crist is radioactive to many GOP conservatives.
Even Republicans who supported Crist's less-ideological style of governing resent LeMieux for turning on Crist after he left the GOP. "George LeMieux is a Mount Everest of ambition shoehorned into a molehill of a man,'' GOP strategist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich has said.
Nick Loeb: Loeb, 35, is a wealthy Delray Beach banking heir who ran unsuccessfully for the Delray City Commission in 2005 and cut short a state Senate run in 2009. He has little to no statewide profile and stands out for only two reasons: He is capable of spending millions of his own money on the race, and he is dating Sofia Vergara, the actor and model appearing on the TV show Modern Family.
And then there's Adam Hasner.
"There are three things about Florida Republican primary voters — they are conservative, and also conservative and also extremely conservative,'' said Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who is not affiliated with any candidate. "I would put Adam Hasner's conservative bona fides alongside everybody else in the field. … Remember, he was a conductor for Marco Rubio when almost everybody else was on the Charlie Crist train."
Hasner is a fierce partisan who has stood out in recent years for being among the earliest prominent Republican critics of Crist, for fighting a federal effort to help make unionizing easier, for vocally attacking a Muslim civil rights group (the Council on American-Islamic Relations) for alleged terrorist ties and for promoting electric cars in Florida.
Nobody calls Hasner a leading contender at this point, but some Democratic strategists perceive him as a serious general election threat: an extreme right-winger who comes off as perfectly reasonable.
"I'm seriously looking at it, but right now I'm doing what's most important — talking to people and listening,'' Hasner said.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com.