Republicans fret about Connie Mack campaign

Published Apr. 17, 2012

With an iconic name and access to Washington cash, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack looked like the great Republican hope when he entered Florida's U.S. Senate race and posed a serious threat to Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.

Six months later, however, Mack has proven to be neither a potent statewide candidate nor a shoo-in to win the Republican nomination against his little-known rivals.

From Washington to Tallahassee to local GOP clubs, Republican professionals and activists are buzzing about Mack's underwhelming campaign and debut as a statewide candidate. Some want another candidate and on Monday a big name — Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — announced he is considering jumping into the race.

"It's late. But I share the same deep-seated concern they hold," Atwater told the Shark Tank blog, referring to people encouraging him to run. "This is an extraordinary country. It's an exceptional place on the planet and if we don't turn it around soon, frankly it will be too late for another generation."

He added: "I think I have a responsibility to sit back (and listen) to these people that I respect greatly and are serious-minded conservatives of this great state to take a hard look at it."

In a Monday Tampa Bay Times survey of more than 80 seasoned Florida political professionals and activists — fundraisers, campaign consultants and grass roots organizers — half said it was not too late for a new candidate to get in and mount a credible campaign. That's an extraordinary number given the lofty, early expectations about Mack, whose father, Connie Mack III, was a popular U.S. senator and whose great-grandfather was a baseball icon. Mack is married to California congresswoman Mary Bono Mack.

But the Fort Myers Republican has managed to raise barely more money than former interim Sen. George LeMieux, who's tainted by his longtime association with former Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist. They have slightly more than $1 million in the bank each. Nelson sits on $9.5 million without an expensive primary looming.

Only twice has Mack appeared for candidate forums with the two other major Republican candidates, and each time conservative activists who questioned and listened to all three voted Mack the weakest of the bunch.

"When he got into the race it's almost like Connie Mack sucked the air out of the race, but he wasn't able to sustain that," said Karin Hoffman, CEO of the Broward County-based DC Works for Us, which organized a tea party conference in Orlando attended by all the Senate candidates recently.

"As more time has gone on," she said, "the reaction to him from people paying attention has become, 'Well, not so much.' "

After the recent tea party forum, Hoffman said she started leaning toward LeMieux.

Mack's spokesman, David James, disputes what Republicans like Hoffman and many others are saying. He said Mack's support is strong and getting stronger and implied the Times/Herald is manufacturing doubts about the Mack campaign to damage him.

"Connie Mack has sent Bill Nelson and his liberal allies, including those in the press, into panic mode and it won't work. Republicans know that conservative Connie Mack will defeat liberal Bill Nelson and Mitt Romney will defeat Nelson's chief ally Barack Obama, regardless of what the left wing media wants," said Mack spokesman David James, when asked about the prospect of Atwater running.

"We feel very good with where we're at," James said. He said the campaign's fundraising totals would likely have been even higher had it not been for the January presidential primary in Florida that stretched donors thin.

Polls indicate the Fort Myers congressman has little chance of losing the Republican race right now without Atwater or another strong candidate in the race.

And with such a big name and big lead in the polls, Mack has ample time to kick his fundraising into high gear, improve his grass roots stumping and become the threat to Nelson that Republicans want. But the mere act of Atwater publicly mulling the Senate race damages Mack's contention that he's the inevitable nominee.

Atwater, who did not return messages Monday, could be a force. In 2010, the low-key former banker and Florida Senate president earned nearly 3 million votes — more than any of the other five Republicans who won state office. Atwater also hails from a hotbed of Republican finance, Palm Beach County, where some party chiefs have tried to get other candidates to run.

But if Atwater enters the race, it'll be no gimme. Candidates for federal office are essentially banned from taking corporate money, unlike state-office candidates, and have to raise the bulk of their hard-to-come-by money from individuals.

Also, Atwater committed what could be a cardinal sin to many Republicans when he was Florida Senate president in 2009: He played a key role in the Legislature's decision to take federal stimulus money and to raise taxes and fees by about $2.2 billion.

How did Mack leave an opening for someone else to get in? Part of it was underwhelming money-raising, part of it was performance on the campaign trail.

People who attended the Orlando tea party conference, just like those who attended a similar one in February by the Florida Federation of Republican Women, noted Mack was the only candidate uninterested in personally chatting and connecting with the hard core activists in attendance.

In contrast, LeMieux and political newcomer Mike McCalister don't seem to leave a hand unshaken at these events. LeMieux won his third straw poll last week at the East Manatee Republican Club, which Mack skipped.

Mack announced his first TV ad last week, which ripped Nelson for approving the stimulus because it authorized $144,541 on research that tested effects of cocaine on monkeys. Filled with images and sounds of hooting monkeys, the ad blasts Nelson as a liberal.

Experienced campaign hands rolled their eyes. Normally, a candidate's first spot introduces him to the public and frames serious issues he wants to talk about.

"Let's just say it's not the ad I would have run at this time," said Keith Appell, with CRC media, who worked on Gov. Rick Scott's campaign and helped coordinate media strategy for the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.

"There's a time and place for humor," Appell said. "But I'm not sure this is it."

Nelson has been steadily raising money — in the last three months he raised more money than Mack and LeMieux combined. Nelson also is rising in the polls along with President Barack Obama. The last statewide poll from Quinnipiac University showed Nelson up by 8 percentage points over Mack. But pollsters and pundits widely view the two-term incumbent as beatable in such a volatile election year.

Quinnipiac didn't poll the Republican primary, in part because LeMieux and McCalister are so far behind. LeMieux had an anemic fundraising quarter. Where Mack pulled in about $1 million, LeMieux raised only $305,000.

LeMieux has just $1.2 million in the bank. Mack: $1.3 million. Unlike LeMieux, Mack began fundraising late because he only entered the race in November.

But Mack's sum is paltry compared to the estimated $8 million that former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who withdrew from the race and endorsed Mack, planned to have on hand by now. Haridopolos raised more than LeMieux and Mack — a sign that the money's out there; but it's not flowing to Florida.

LeMieux has stumped the state aggressively, hammering Mack for the string of fistfights as a youth and for his numerous votes in Congress for budget-stuffing earmarks. "The Charlie Sheen of Florida Politics," LeMieux dubbed Mack.

Pat Shortridge, a top adviser in Marco Rubio's Senate race, said he's hearing concern from national Republicans about the campaign. He said it's "not at all surprising" people are looking for another candidate, but "it's far-fetched at this late date" in the campaign.

"For conservatives, there's a lot of concern that we don't have a candidate in Florida," Shortridge said. "There are very serious concerns about the kind of candidate George LeMieux is, given his years as Charlie Crist's right-hand man and as attack dog against Marco Rubio, and lots of questions about Connie Mack."