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March column: Another name to put in the hat for U.S. Senate — Rick Baker?

Published May 20, 2015

In the complicated jockeying around the Republican primary for the 2016 U.S. Senate race, there are some who would like to add yet another wrinkle — a Tampa Bay area candidate.

Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, has already said he's considering the idea, but if he says no, what about former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker?

Associates say they've discussed it with Baker and he isn't rejecting the idea, but he hasn't returned calls for comment, so who knows?

Mayor from 2001 to 2009, Baker has done some trial ballooning since. After leaving office, there was speculation of Baker as a state Cabinet candidate. In 2013, he was initially considered potential frontrunner for the GOP nomination for the House District 13 seat won by Jolly.

With the previous best-known potential candidates staying out — Chief Financial Office Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi — thinking among some Tampa Bay area GOP insiders is that a cross-party vote-getter with a base in the state's largest media market/largest swing area, which produces roughly a third of GOP primary votes statewide, could mount a serious campaign.

But then: "I'm hearing this so far only from the consulting class, and they always have a motive to stir things up — getting paid by the candidate," prominent GOP fundraiser Nancy Watkins said. "I can't believe he'd leave his wonderful job at the Edwards Group."

GOPers seek Jim Norman alternative

Former Republican Hills­borough County Commissioner and state Sen. Jim Norman has been telling people he's definitely running for the District 6 countywide seat now held by Kevin Beckner. Norman tells us he's "about 60/40" for running and is getting positive reaction.

But some Republicans aren't sure they want him carrying the party's banner, and are looking for alternatives.

Norman left public office in 2012 after extensive coverage raised questions about his financial ties to a wealthy backer.

He'd still be formidable. He has never lost an election, he retains much of his strong base in east Hillsborough (read, "Sam Rashid"), and he's an energetic, enthusiastic retail campaigner.

"He loves to go door to door. He does it so much he gets on a first-name basis with people," local GOP consultant Mark Proctor said.

New county GOP chair Deborah Tamargo cited the questions raised about Norman and said, "What I'm hearing and seeing is that people are ready for a change — new vision, fresh ideas. What people are tired of is, you work hard for somebody and they end up in a scandal."

Asked if she was seeking an alternative, she said she's always recruiting candidates for every level.

Several names are bandied about as potential primary challengers. One of the strongest is environmental consultant Janet Dougherty, who raised more than $200,000 and ran a strong second to Commissioner Stacy White in the 2014 primary.

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Dougherty said she has "everything in place" for a potential run if she doesn't get the county Environmental Protection Commission director's job. The EPC is scheduled to decide on Thursday.

'Hillraisers' and 'Hillstarters'

Chalk up about $26,000 for the recent Hillary Clinton campaign event at Pat Frank's house. Among the check-bearing attendees: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

The haul helped qualify the host group, which includes Stacy Frank, former Mayor Sandy Freedman, City Council member Harry Cohen, and Frank's mother, Clerk of Court Pat Frank, for the "Hillstarter," program, an offshoot of the "Hillraisers" fundraising group.

GOP foreign affairs panel at MOSI

The Hillsborough County Republican Party will host a panel discussion on foreign affairs, particularly the Middle East and Central and South America, on Tuesday at the Museum of Science and Industry with local experts who have a conservative lean: retired Air Force Col. E.J. Otero; Venezuelan lawyer and American columnist Norma Reno; and James Waurishuk, also a retired Air Force colonel.