The strongest Democratic and Republican candidates for Florida's U.S. Senate race are a couple of congressional rookies who have yet to finish a full term in the U.S. House.
That, at least, is the conventional wisdom underscored in the latest Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll. One hundred and sixty of Florida's savviest and most experienced political players voted U.S. Reps. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, and Gwen Graham, D-Tallahassee, the most formidable general election candidates their parties could field to succeed Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.
Jolly, 42, announced his candidacy Monday, while Graham, 52, has expressed no interest in running for U.S. Senate. But — and this is unwelcome news for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democratic gubernatorial prospect — many of Florida's political elites already are talking up Graham as a top contender for governor in 2018.
"She is the Dems' best shot for gov, but would immediately change the Dem Senate calculation," one Republican said. "She is in the driver's seat."
The political landscape across Florida changed this month after the state Supreme Court ordered legislators to redraw congressional districts. Many observers expect Jolly's Pinellas district to wind up overwhelmingly Democratic and Graham's North Florida district to become overwhelmingly Republican.
The Florida Insider Poll is an unscientific survey of political consultants, fundraisers, lobbyists, political scientists and the like, some of whom are actively supporting or working for subjects of the poll. That makes it a better measurement of the conventional wisdom from Florida's political intelligentsia than a predictor of races.
Asked about the Republican U.S. Senate primary field, 37 percent predicted Jolly would win the nomination, 22 percent Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, 21 percent U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of northeast Florida, 14 percent former Attorney General Bill McCollum of Orlando, and 5 percent U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of northwest Florida. McCollum and Miller are considering running but have not committed.
Who would be the strongest Republican for the general election? Forty-three percent said Jolly (40 percent of Republicans and 47 percent of Democrats said so); 31 percent said Lopez-Cantera (28 percent of Democrats and 34 percent of Republicans); 10 percent McCollum; 9 percent DeSantis; and 3 percent Miller.
On the Democratic side, an overwhelming 62 percent predicted U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter would be the Senate nominee (including 79 percent of Democrats), with 19 percent for Graham and 18 percent for U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando.
"David Jolly is to the GOP what Patrick Murphy is to the Democratic Party, a centrist, fiscal conservative with a social liberal bias," said one Democrat. "Gwen Graham should work to help other Democrats win in 2016 and look toward the Governor's Mansion in 2018. She would be an instant front-runner. … Both DeSantis and Grayson are just too extreme for our state."
"Gwen Graham is the one Democrat that Republicans should fear," said another Republican. "Center-right Democrat, family name and a woman. She needs more than one term in Congress for seasoning, but she has to play the hand she's dealt."
Asked whether it would be wise for Graham to jump into the Senate race if her district winds up redrawn as overwhelmingly Republican, nearly seven in 10 surveyed (but only 53 percent of Democrats) said she should.
"As impressive as Gwen Graham is, I fear the long-term effects of my party rushing to push people into races simply because of our weak bench. I think she would be competitive in that seat even if it moved a few points into the red," one Democrat said.
The latest Florida Insider Poll consisted of 53 Democrats, 94 Republicans and 13 people registered to neither major party. Their names are listed on the Buzz blog at tampabay.com/buzz.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at email@example.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.