With Trump leading, nearly all Senate candidates seek 'outsider' label

Presidential Candidate Donald Trump is considered a political outsider in the presidential race. In this photo, Trump speaks at his rally at the Tampa Convention Center on Monday afternoon, March 14, 2016. [ZACK WITTMAN  |  Times]
Presidential Candidate Donald Trump is considered a political outsider in the presidential race. In this photo, Trump speaks at his rally at the Tampa Convention Center on Monday afternoon, March 14, 2016. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published March 24, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — In a year when Donald Trump is the Republican front-runner, the anti-establishment momentum of the presidential race is trickling down-ballot.

Call it the Trump effect or the Bernie Sanders effect: Nearly all of the seven candidates for Florida's open U.S. Senate seat — even some sitting congressmen — are angling to be seen as "the outsider."

But some experts say that strategy might not be the boon candidates hope for, even in an election cycle that's so anti-Washington.

"There's something that is so unique to Trump that I'm not sure it's easily translated to another race," said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the Rothenberg and Gonzales political report.

Florida's in an unusual position, with incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio not seeking re-election.

"In terms of the effect of Trump down-ballot, nobody knows," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook political report. "Everybody is in pretty uncharted water."

It's made more complex by the nearly six-month gap between Florida's presidential primary and the Aug. 30 Senate primary and by polls showing that as many as half the voters don't have an opinion of the candidates.

For the past month, Republicans in particular have hurled criticisms at one another, trying to make their opponents out to be part of the political elite.

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, called Bradenton homebuilder Carlos Beruff a "Charlie Crist Republican" and accused him of "crony capitalism."

For his part, Beruff has gone after Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and U.S. Rep David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, as "professional politicians."

"What everyone's struggling with this cycle is what constitutes an outsider, especially in this new world of Trump," DeSantis campaign manager Brad Herold said. "Everyone can run as an outsider and tell people they're going to do these things, but to go out and actually do them, that's what people are looking for."

DeSantis and Jolly, the two sitting congressmen in the Republican race, lay claim to being outsiders by pointing to times they've disagreed with party leaders during their respective three and two years in Congress. That, they say, proves they're anti-establishment.

"People want somebody that's going to eschew labels and actually fix things," Jolly said.

But, he interjects, "If we want to have a contest about who's the outsider, then I can make the case of why my profile makes me more of an outsider than anyone else."

It's a "hard sell" for Jolly or DeSantis to claim the outsider mantle, said Duffy, since they're sitting congressmen in a race with no incumbent, running against people whose names have never been on a ballot.

"I think you're seeing the popularity and the traction that we saw with not just Trump but (Carly) Fiorina and (Ben) Carson as well," Orlando defense contractor Todd Wilcox said. "People are fed up of career politicians that keep changing like chameleons."

Yet even Wilcox, a first-time candidate, has taken hits for being too much of an insider.

Last week, Jolly accused him of lifting a tax plan from John Kasich, the Ohio governor and presidential candidate: "you can't just take an insiders plan and label it 'outsider,' " Jolly wrote on Twitter.

Much of the rancor rose in recent weeks after Beruff entered the race, stressing his outsider cred by noting he has never even "run for dogcatcher."

"These guys are all collecting paychecks from you and me and everyone else who pays taxes," he said. "They haven't finished their first jobs, and they're looking for their second."

His opponents, in return, point to Beruff's large donations to political campaigns, including Gov. Rick Scott's, and his appointments to government boards.

"I've supported the people who come to my office and tell me they have the same principles I have," he said.

But most of those people let Beruff down, he said — with the one exception being Scott.

Like Jolly and DeSantis, Lopez-Cantera's campaign has said that his time working in government proves he's an outsider. In a statement, his campaign said he has "experience in delivering tangible results here in Florida."

Republicans aren't alone in laying claim to being an outsider.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, has played off similar fervor in his own Senate race.

"I haven't been bought and paid for by billionaires, by special interests," he said, echoing familiar statements of both Sanders and Trump. "If that makes me an outsider, then that's what people want this year."

He says voters' cynicism has brought them to this point, where they don't trust people who have been in office for a long time.

Grayson's opponent, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, was not available for an interview. In response to questions about whether he sees himself as an outsider and how he expects voters to react, his campaign released a statement saying the race is about what's best for Florida's families.

Murphy has run as a part of the political establishment with endorsements from labor unions and President Barack Obama.

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.