MIAMI — Gov. Rick Scott's lieutenant joins what's shaping up to be an intriguing Republican primary field.
Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former state lawmaker who rose from relative obscurity as Miami-Dade County property appraiser to become next-in-line to the Florida governor, will pursue the U.S. Senate seat now filled by one of his close friends, Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
"I'm running so that they can live in the kind of country that gave my Cuban family the blessings of liberty and freedom that only the United States of America offers," Lopez-Cantera said of his two daughters at his campaign kickoff Wednesday. "I'm running so that your children can have the same opportunities."
Casting himself as an outsider, he offered a platform familiar to voters who paid attention to last year's gubernatorial campaign. Lopez-Cantera hit the same points as when he ran with Gov. Rick Scott — job creation and tax reduction — though he also touched on foreign-policy issues crucial to South Florida voters: defending democracy in Cuba and Venezuela and improving relations with Israel.
"CLC!" chanted the largely Cuban-American crowd, using Lopez-Cantera's initials and legislative nickname.
Lopez-Cantera spoke in front of a massive American flag draped over a ceiling-high stack of boxes at a loading dock for All American Containers, a manufacturing and wholesale plant in Northwest Miami-Dade owned by Fausto and Remedios Diaz-Oliver, reliable Republican political donors who are also longtime Lopez-Cantera family friends. Remedios Diaz-Oliver said Lopez-Cantera's grandparents traveled to one of Ronald Reagan's presidential inaugurations with her and her husband.
The newly minted candidate made his plans official in a pair of YouTube videos released Wednesday morning. His nascent campaign posted one in English and one in Spanish, a nod to a candidacy that will rely heavily on Hispanic Republicans in voter-rich South Florida to support one of their own in a primary field likely to include contenders in several of the state's disparate political regions.
"I'll continue the work of our fine United States Sen. Marco Rubio," Lopez-Cantera said in his speech.
Lopez-Cantera, 41, is running as an heir to Rubio — he sat on stage with the incumbent senator when Rubio launched his presidential bid — and cuts a similar campaign figure for a GOP hungry for diversity: a fresh-faced Cuban-American with a young family. His wife, Renee, works in the Miami Herald's circulation department, where she does not come into contact with newsroom reporters or editors.
Rubio has said he will not run for re-election to the Senate even if he drops out of the GOP presidential primary before he has to qualify for the 2016 ballot.
For now, Lopez-Cantera's chief rival is U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, a younger tea-party darling with a compelling personal story who put Lopez-Cantera on notice Tuesday by reporting more than $2 million in the bank for his campaign. DeSantis has secured the backing of numerous donors to Gov. Scott, who has said he'll stay out of the GOP primary.
In the past five weeks, Lopez-Cantera raised about $140,000 for his "leadership" political action committee, Reform Washington, and another $880,000 for a super PAC with the same name. Now that he's a candidate, he can no longer coordinate with the super PAC, which will be run by former Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon. Cannon, who is now a Tallahassee lobbyist, named Lopez-Cantera his majority leader when Lopez-Cantera was a legislator.
A potential North Florida challenger, U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Chumuckla, in the Panhandle, could split some of DeSantis' conservative base if he runs. Likewise, a candidacy from U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Indian Shores, near Tampa, who appears set to jump in the race after the Florida Supreme Court ordered a redrawing of his swing district, could attract more moderate voters that Lopez-Cantera has his eye on. A first-time candidate, defense contractor Todd Wilcox of Orlando, is also running.
Democrats, who are locked in a tense intra-party Senate contest between Reps. Alan Grayson of Orlando and Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, have zeroed in on attacking Lopez-Cantera over his ties to Scott. The governor hand-picked Lopez-Cantera as his deputy 18 months ago, plucking him from the elected Miami-Dade property appraiser's post that he had held for only a year.
"Unfortunately for Lopez-Cantera, he won't be able to hide behind Rick Scott or his wealthy special interests funders when he hits the campaign trail and is forced to explain his disastrous record of putting politics and profits ahead of the people he supposedly serves," Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said in a statement. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called him a "career politician."
Lopez-Cantera characterized the attention as a sign the Democrats don't want to face him in the general election.
"I absolutely am running on my state record, because it's worked," Lopez-Cantera told the Herald in an interview following his announcement. He rattled off a list of statistics about new jobs, tax cuts and education funding. "Yeah, that's the kind of stuff I'd like to be a part of."
Because he holds a state office that is not on the 2016 ballot, Lopez-Cantera does not have to resign as lieutenant governor to run for Senate. Scott has been asked if Lopez-Cantera should leave office anyway to avoid charges of campaigning on the taxpayers' dime, but the governor has said he leaves the decision to his No. 2 executive. Lopez-Cantera told the Herald that neither the governor nor anyone on his staff has asked him to step down.
As his Senate run became more and more apparent, Lopez-Cantera's critics have noted his light schedule as lieutenant governor. The job is often derided as nothing more than a ceremonial position — that nevertheless draws a $125,000 salary.
"I can commit to the voters and the citizens of Florida that this endeavor will not affect in any way, shape or form, the duties and responsibilities that are required of the lieutenant governor of Florida," Lopez-Cantera said.