Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics

Is the GOP Senate primary over? Connie Mack says so

U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV's strategy to win the Republican primary for U.S. Senate is simple: ignore it.

"We have a 33-point lead," Mack said last week, explaining his decision to skip three televised GOP primary debates.

With a comfy lead, a highly recognizable family name and the support of Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, Mack seems the far-and-away favorite to face off against Sen. Bill Nelson come November.

But some grass roots Republicans say it's too soon for Mack to declare himself the winner — especially if he won't make the customary rounds at debates and straw polls.

"It's an incredibly bad message to send to the voters in a primary," said Nancy McGowan, president of the Conservative Republican Forum of Jacksonville. "It just says, 'What you think doesn't matter.' "

Mack's primary opponents, former Sen. George LeMieux, former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon and retired Army Col. Mike McCalister, trail Mack by at least 32 points, according to a May poll by Quinnipiac (Weldon entered the race that month and was not considered for the poll). The poll showed Mack essentially tied with Nelson in a November matchup.

So why let a nasty primary hurt the GOP's chances in November?

"If my opponents want to debate me, that will only help Sen. Nelson," Mack said.

His campaign manager, Jeff Cohen, a longtime aide to Mack and his father, put it more bluntly in declining an invitation to a July 26 debate co-hosted by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and Florida PBS.

"It's clear the race for the U.S. Senate in Florida is now between Connie Mack, the Republican, and Bill Nelson, the Democrat," Cohen wrote.

LeMieux blasted Mack for blowing off the debates.

Mack "wants nothing more than to hide behind his father's name and allow Republicans to enter the polling booth uninformed," LeMieux said in a statement.

Weldon said he was disappointed but not surprised because Mack is a "bad debater" and doesn't perform well at candidate forums.

"Everybody in the Republican establishment is walking on egg shells because this guy has managed to get all of these endorsements, but the rank-and-file aren't happy," Weldon said. "The question I get, and I've heard this a number of times, is, Should he be a senator just because his father was a senator?"

Across the state, GOP loyalists interviewed by the Times made it clear they will support Mack if he wins the Aug. 14 primary. But that doesn't mean they won't have hard feelings.

Neither Mack nor McCalister showed up for a straw poll last week hosted by Pinellas County Republicans. As county chairman Jay Beyrouti announced Mack's third-place finish, he said, "You better be here next time," to laughs.

"Our members really are demanding to see him, hear from him," said Beyrouti, who is not connected to any campaign. "They are not excited right now to work for a man who did not reach out to them."

Pasco County GOP chairman Bill Bunting, who is part of Mack's Pasco campaign, says he understands why Mack may want to avoid the chance of embarrassing himself on a statewide stage, as any misstep would be a campaign treat for Democrats. Consider the meltdown of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's presidential campaign after poor GOP debate performances, he said.

"If he's doing it for that reason then I respect it," Bunting said. "Certainly the voters deserve to have people come out and debate. There's no question about that. But it's how to control the debate and keep it respectable. Therein lies the problem."

Hillsborough County Republicans expect to hear from Mack at their July meeting — months after an initial meeting with leadership there.

A.J. Matthews, a state committeeman from Hillsborough who has not endorsed a candidate, said Mack so far has benefited mostly from the fondness voters have for his father, a two-term U.S. senator of the same name who is remembered for working alongside Democratic Sen. Bob Graham.

The primary-or-not-to-primary discussion reminds Matthews of 1988, when Mack III's Republican opponent, former U.S. prosecutor Robert Merkle of Tampa, toted a life-sized "Cardboard Connie" cutout because Mack wouldn't debate him.

"I do know that George LeMieux has been very gracious in accepting requests all over the state," Matthews said. "And I know that Connie Mack has not done the same degree of making appearances."

Mack appeared alongside Romney, who has endorsed him, in Orlando on Tuesday before attending fundraisers in Oklahoma and Texas.

In Orlando, Mack gave a two-minute introduction of the presumptive GOP presidential nominee and walked backstage with Romney after the speech. The two shook hands with the crowd, but people were cordoned off and unable to follow along as Mack walked ahead of Romney.

"Doing events with Romney is one surefire way of getting the media's attention, so I can't criticize Mack for taking advantage of it," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"At the same time, voters do deserve the opportunity to hear where candidates stand beyond 30-second ads. A couple of high-profile, televised debates generally satisfy this for voters."

Plus, Mack forfeits an opportunity to air out his dirty laundry before a more contentious general election — something that helped Romney this cycle and Barack Obama in 2008.

Mack spokesman David James denied that Mack is coasting on his name, pointing to a dozen campaign events in recent weeks, including Panhandle roundtables, tea party speeches and a Reagan Day dinner in St. Johns County.

None were in Tampa Bay, though Mack did host a reception in Tampa as part of a candidates forum during the Republican Party of Florida's quarterly meeting in April.

In Orlando, Mack objected to a reporter asking about a lack of local events with the public.

"Obviously, I'm here today, talking to you," Mack said. "And in fact, I'll be in Tampa later today."

The reporter asked if the event would be public.

"No," Mack said.

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

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