Republican U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez announced suddenly Tuesday that he will not seek a second term after 2010, setting up a potential political free-for-all for a rare open Senate seat.
"The call to public service is strong, but the call to home, family and lifelong friends is even stronger,'' Martinez said with his wife, Kitty, beside him at a hastily arranged news conference in his hometown of Orlando.
Among countless prospective Republican candidates for Martinez's seat, former Gov. Jeb Bush stood out as the biggest name declining Tuesday to rule out a run for the Senate. And Martinez's surprise announcement prompted Democratic Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink to delay her own announcement that she would seek a second term in the state Cabinet.
"Martinez's decision not to run for re-election scrambles the entire picture for Florida politics in 2010,'' said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Florida Republicans for months have questioned whether Martinez had the fire for another tough campaign and another six years in Washington, but until this week the onetime Orange County chairman had repeatedly knocked down the rumors. He left Cuba and his parents at age 15 for Orlando, and friends and aides said he was frequently torn between spending time in Florida with his family or fulfilling the demands of a U.S. senator, including raising money and making the rounds at civic groups and Republican clubs.
"A lot of politicians use this as a reason to get out, but I think for him it's real," said Kirk Fordham, a veteran Republican operative and current head of the Everglades Foundation, who led Martinez's fundraising efforts during his 2004 campaign.
Martinez, 62, stood to be one of the top targets for Democrats in 2010, with a November Quinnipiac poll finding just 36 percent of likely voters in Florida saying he deserved another term. But the lone Hispanic Republican in the Senate said politics had nothing to do with his decision, which he made early to give prospective candidates time to prepare.
"Some will say a re-election campaign would have been too difficult, but I've faced much tougher odds in political campaigns and in life,'' Martinez said, noting the demands of representing a state as large and complex as Florida.
"When you represent Vermont, no disrespect to those senators, it's a small state — you go home and you go to one or two cities and you've covered the state," Martinez said. "When you represent a state as big as Florida you never catch up, in addition to going back and forth (to Washington). It is very, very demanding."
He added quickly, "No regrets or any complaints or anything," but "I am equally pleased to just bow and move on."
His announcement had obscure and prominent political figures alike happily fanning speculation that they might run for the open seat, and countless others eyeing seats that might come open as a result. Top political fundraisers across Florida fielded calls from prospective candidates urging them to hold off on commitments until the field comes into sharper focus.
"It's like a chessboard, there are going to be a lot of different movements,'' said former state senator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rod Smith, who said he is keeping an eye on the Senate and several other potential offices in 2010.
Among the Republican prospects for Martinez's seat: Attorney General Bill McCollum, who has run for Senate twice already; U.S. Reps. Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville, Adam Putnam of Bartow, Vern Buchanan of Sarasota, Connie Mack of Fort Myers, and Jeff Miller of Chumuckla; and former state House speakers Marco Rubio of Miami, Allan Bense of Panama City and Dan Webster of Winter Garden.
Among the Democrats who declined to rule out a Senate run Tuesday: CFO Sink; Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio; Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer; U.S. Reps. Allen Boyd of Monticello, Kendrick Meek of Miami and Ron Klein of Boca Raton; state Sens. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Dave Aronberg of Greenacres; and Democratic fundraiser Chris Korge of Miami.
"It really will take a while to settle out and find out what's happening. I imagine there are as many rumors as there are elected officials in the state of Florida,'' said Democrat Betty Castor of Tampa, who barely lost to Martinez in 2004 and is backing Sink this time.
"I think the governor is really in the catbird seat right now. He's a formidable, formidable person,'' said Castor. "And I don't know that the governor has to make up his mind right away. Everybody else probably does."
But Crist would have to choose between running for re-election in 2010 or aiming for Washington, and he downplayed the likelihood of a job shift when asked Tuesday how he liked the sound of "Sen. Charlie Crist."
"I ran for it once. I sure like Gov. Charlie Crist, thanks to the people of Florida," he said.
Other than Crist, only Jeb Bush would have the political heft to effectively clear the GOP field, and Republican activists and donors were aggressively pushing him to jump in. Bush allies say he is seriously considering it, despite his image as hard-charging executive rather than compromising legislator.
"He remains focused on the important policy issues facing our country in these challenging times, chiefly education reform,'' a Bush spokeswoman said. "Gov. Bush hopes to play a constructive role in the future of the party, advocating ideas and policies to get the conservative cause back on track."
Barring Bush or Crist running for the Republican Senate nomination or Sink for the Democrats, the Senate race is likely to be crowded and wide open.
"It's like a flame that will draw politicians like moths to it. It's an open seat for the United States Senate. It will be the most contested race around in 2010," said George LeMieux, Crist's former campaign manager and chief of staff, who doubts the governor would run.
Two years out, Crist is overwhelmingly favored to win re-election as governor. But depending on who runs for Senate, Floridians also may be looking at open statewide races for attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner.
"Fasten your seat belts. 2010 has the potential to be the biggest free-for-all in Florida politics since 1986," said Chris Hand, a Jacksonville lawyer and veteran Democratic strategist.
"With a nationally significant open U.S. Senate seat, a gubernatorial campaign, one or more open Cabinet jobs, and more than two dozen term limited state Legislators, Floridians will see highly competitive and expensive races up and down the ballot."
Jennifer Liberto, Alex Leary and Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.