Florida's Republican U.S. Senate primary to replace Marco Rubio has been a humdrum affair featuring three credible but little-known candidates overshadowed by the presidential campaign. But now Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater is reconsidering his decision not to run, and in the latest Tampa Bay Times Florida Insider Poll of nearly 160 Florida politicos, more than two thirds predict Atwater will win the nomination.
Even with another well-known name in the race — former Attorney General Bill McCollum, who is strongly considering running — 68 percent of those surveyed predicted Atwater would win, 13 percent said U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, 9 percent U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, 6 percent Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and 4 percent McCollum.
"Atwater looks wishy-washy but it's the right thing for him to reconsider. No Republican has gained traction and if the GOP wants to keep this seat during a presidential election year, it's critical to have a candidate with name ID. Running twice statewide, even down-ticket, is better name ID than any other Republican currently in the race. If Atwater gets in, and I expect him to do so, a lot of the field will clear," said one Republican.
Without Atwater in the race, Jolly is the strong favorite to win the nomination among those surveyed. Thirty-nine percent said the Pinellas congressman likely would win, 23 percent said DeSantis, 20 percent Lopez-Cantera, and 18 percent for McCollum. Without McCollum or Atwater in the race, 48 percent of our Insiders predicted Jolly would be the nominee, and the remainder were evenly divided between DeSantis and Lopez-Cantera.
The two major Democratic candidates are U.S. Reps. Alan Grayson of Orlando and Patrick Murphy of Jupiter. Nearly three out of four of the Insiders predicted Murphy would win the nomination.
"Grayson hasn't had a real race since 2010, beating weak opponents in 2012 and 2014. Grayson needs to raise a large sum of money to have any shot, and if his finance report isn't stellar this last quarter, then it means his controversies can't be outweighed by a financial advantage," said one Democrat. "The Democratic primary polls are close right now, but I expect as the ad wars begin later on, Murphy will pull ahead. Grayson's controversies are many and they won't play well with voters in the primary or general."
Ninety-five percent said Murphy would be the strongest general election candidate, and 70 percent said Atwater would be the strongest for Republicans.
"Jolly, much like Adam Putnam, represents the Florida middle, both in temperament and ideology. He is the closest to those who have served before like Graham, Chiles, Martinez and Nelson," said a Democrat.
Insider Polls are entirely unscientific surveys of veteran fundraisers, campaign operatives, academics and other veterans of Florida politics, and many of our participants are actively working for or supporting some of the candidates we're asking about. The polls tend to represent conventional wisdom among the political establishment, and we allow anonymous answers to encourage honest assessments.
Even with Atwater heavily favored to win if he runs, quite of few of those surveyed sounded decidedly unimpressed with how Atwater called off his all-but-announced campaign in April, only to crack the door open now.
"Atwater may have more statewide wins under his belt, but his perpetual vacillating about running reeks of timid indecisiveness at a time when voters are demanding courage and boldness — a fact his opponents will point out. Even Charlie Crist is more resolute, and that's saying a lot," said a Republican.
This week's Florida Insiders included 49 Democrats, 92 Republicans, and nine people registered to neither major party. They are listed on the Buzz blog at tampabay.com/buzz.
Loyal to Rubio?
State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, is one of only six Republicans out of 26 senators not to endorse Jeb Bush for president last week. Lee did not return calls, but as he was an early backer of Rubio for U.S. Senate, we're guessing that's his presidential preference. Tampa Bay Republican senators backing Bush include: Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, Jack Latvala of Clearwater, John Legg of Trinity and Wilton Simpson of Trilby.
Dunedin resident Adrian Wyllie resigned as chairman of the Libertarian Party of Florida last week, because the party's executive committee was unwilling to openly oppose Augustus Sol Invictus, the only declared candidate for their U.S. Senate nomination. According to Wyllie, Invictus — whose name purportedly means "unconquerable sun god" — is a fascist who supports eugenics and is committed to start a second Civil War.
Information from the News Service of Florida contributed.