Republican U.S. Senate candidate George LeMieux claimed Wednesday he was ending his campaign so that the overwhelming favorite for the Republican nomination, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, has the best chance to beat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in November. But LeMieux's exit after more than a year on the stump — while encouraged by the Republican establishment — may not do Mack any favors. The party could be left with a nominee untested on the statewide stage and whose defining asset is simply his family's name.
So far, Mack has not engaged in much retail campaigning — refusing to participate in Republican forums and primary debates — and as such has yet to have his record and positions vetted and fine-tuned. Political polls have suggested none of that will hurt him in the primary. Mack shares a name with his father, a well-regarded former U.S. senator, and a great-grandfather who was longtime manager of baseball's Philadelphia Athletics. And he has locked up the endorsements of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney in recent weeks, further unleashing campaign donations from the Republican establishment.
But winning a primary based on name recognition and a significant war chest short-circuits a key benefit of contested primaries. These sharpen candidates' messages and give them practice on the stump, as both President Barack Obama discovered in 2008 and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Romney did this year. With LeMieux now off the stage, there is only one experienced political opponent to challenge Mack: former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon, a physician from Melbourne who entered the race just a month ago. The only other significant opposition comes from Mike McCalister, a retired Army Reserve colonel from Hillsborough County who came in third during the 2010 gubernatorial primary.
McCalister is the last of a cadre of little-known hopefuls who initially vied for the seat. Besides LeMieux, exiting the race in the past 11 months have been Senate President Mike Haridopolos, former state Rep. Adam Hasner and former Ruth's Chris Steak House CEO Craig Miller.
Also losing out are moderate Republican voters seeking a candidate. LeMieux, while no moderate, did at least demonstrate during his 16 months as Florida's junior senator an occasional independent streak. While Mack has challenged Arizona's immigration enforcement and supported embryonic stem cell research, his overall voting record is conservative. And Weldon said he entered the race in part because Mack was not conservative enough.
Now, barring another unforeseen development, Mack is poised to coast into the general election. Republicans deserved more viable choices. But two months before the primary election, the party establishment and candidates have weeded out the field themselves. Come November, they may wish that their nominee had been better tested.