ORLANDO — U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, the first and so far only Republican to announce for Florida's 2016 U.S. Senate race, declared his candidacy from Washington. He has pulled together a campaign team mainly from outside the state, and several Beltway-based conservative political groups have lined up behind him.
But as other potential Republican Senate candidates mingled with hundreds of Florida GOP activists in Orlando on Saturday, it seemed the little-known representative from northeast Florida might be in danger of looking too much like a political outsider for his own good.
"We want to elect someone who's focused on Florida, not just Washington," said Nassau County Republican state committeeman Doug Adkins, noting that DeSantis skipped the state GOP executive committee meeting, while U.S. Reps. David Jolly and Jeff Miller, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and former Attorney General Bill McCollum — each considering a run for Senate — made a point of attending.
A spokesman for DeSantis said a family emergency prevented him from attending, although DeSantis had never confirmed his attendance.
Meanwhile, the other prospects schmoozed with party activists from throughout the state and held private meetings with influential organizers, fundraisers and one another at the Rosen Centre Hotel.
"We've been getting positive feedback from grass roots folks, from potential donors, from elected officials," said Lopez-Cantera of Miami, whose supporters already have formed a super PAC to raise money for him. "We like what we're hearing, so there could be an announcement in the near future."
Jolly, R-Indian Shores, sounds more unlikely to run than likely, but the first-term representative said he won't rule anything out until he sees how the field is shaping up this summer.
"I'm listening to what members of our community are saying, and so many of them are saying, 'Please stay.' … My heart is in the House, but let's see what happens in the summertime," said Jolly, 42, who is getting married in July and said he would have enthusiastically backed Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater for Senate.
Atwater surprised everybody when he decided not to run. One of Atwater's political advisers, Rick Wilson, accompanied Lopez-Cantera in political meetings Saturday.
Miller, R-Chumuckla, signaled what his campaign message would be: Florida needs a conservative who has a track record for getting things done. It's an implicit contrast with DeSantis, who is viewed as more of a tea party Republican.
"I have political beliefs and a philosophy I adhere to, but I understand there are other sides to political issues, and I'm willing to listen to all sides," said Miller, who has worked closely with liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders to improve Department of Veterans Affairs services.
Miller represents the Pensacola area but grew up in Pinellas. He told party leaders that his uncle once dated Jolly's mother.
"She likes to say she is the only mother who has diapered two members of Congress," said Miller, 55.
Jolly described Miller as "a bit of a mentor to me" and sounded receptive to endorsing him if he runs: "He's a conservative who I think articulates the right message."
Lopez-Cantera, a 41-year-old former state legislator and Republican state committeeman from Miami, hinted he might also take on DeSantis with a results-oriented message.
"We have a proven playbook in Florida, and it may be smart to take that playbook to D.C.," he said, declining to assess DeSantis' candidacy. "In his brief time in Congress, he's said a lot of the same things that I believe in. I don't think there there's a lot that I would disagree with him on."
McCollum, 70, also mingled with the crowd Saturday and said he is in no rush to make a decision. Strong fundraising will be important to keep that seat, and raising money won't be easy when presidential campaigns are pulling in so much money at the same time.
"Part of the reason why so many people want me to run I think is because I already have strong name ID," McCollum said.
Changing the rules
Members of the state Republican Party's executive board approved new rules decreeing that when Florida holds its presidential primary March 15, the 99 delegates will be awarded "winner-takes-all," rather than proportionally. Ultimately winning the nomination requires winning enough delegates, and if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio have struggled to win delegates in earlier primary contests, Florida could be a crucial life line.
"Florida will now be the first winner-take-all primary in the country. This ensures that all presidential campaigns will have to spend a considerable amount of time in Florida," said party chairman Blaise Ingoglia, promising an all-out effort to deliver Florida's 29 electoral votes to the Republican nominee.