Thirteen months after winning a Pinellas County congressional seat widely expected to go Democratic, U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, is taking a serious look at running for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Marco Rubio.
Jolly, 42, told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday that he is in no rush to make a decision, even as Republicans across Florida start scrambling to assess their prospects after Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater's surprise announcement Saturday that he would not run. On Friday, Jolly had been talking about endorsing Atwater for Senate, and days before that he was preoccupied with proposing to his girlfriend, Laura Donahoe.
"I proposed on Easter morning just before church out on the beach. This was not something on my mind last Sunday, that's for sure," Jolly said of running for Senate.
"As I listen to supporters and those who are encouraging me to look at the Senate race, I want to do two things — one, I want to make sure I attend to the wedding matters and our engagement, and, two, to allow for sufficient time to make the decision that's right, first for Laura and me, and then ultimately for Pinellas County," Jolly said.
He is not alone. Other Republicans looking at the race include U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach, Tom Rooney of Okeechobee and Vern Buchanan of Sarasota, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami and state Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville.
"With Jeff Atwater out, that just shows how much the eggs have been scrambled in Florida, that I have people calling me and offering substantial commitments of support," Gaetz said. The former Senate president said he would be prepared to spend millions of his own money if he decides to jump in.
"I could do that if I got in the race," he said, "and my wife told me last night that she was all in, and she was a lot more in than I was."
DeSantis, an Iraq veteran and tea party favorite, so far looks most likely to run. John Bolton, George W. Bush's U.N. ambassador, endorsed his candidacy Tuesday with a statement praising DeSantis' understanding of the Middle East and strong criticism of President Barack Obama's foreign policy. The Tea Party Express political committee also issued a statement touting DeSantis.
"The country is suffering from stagnation at home and indignities abroad. We need a new generation of leaders who will promote policies that will foster economic growth and alleviate the middle-class squeeze, defend America's national security against those who threaten our people, reform the culture of Washington, D.C., and reassert the constitutional principles that make our country unique," DeSantis said in a statement suggesting an announcement is likely in "several weeks."
Jolly, who earned a national reputation as a giant killer for defeating Democratic frontrunner Alex Sink in a special election last year, said he won't make any decision until after his wedding, likely in June or July.
"My absolute commitment is to Pinellas County," he said. "Even as I'm listening to folks about the Senate race, every bit of my consideration is being done through the lens of what this means for Pinellas County."
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter is the only Democrat running so far, but the more liberal U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson is considering it as well.
Jolly would have to forgo re-election to his congressional seat if he ran for Senate. Congressional District 13, covering most of Pinellas County and the beaches, on paper is among the most competitive in the country. Democrat Eric Lynn, a former Defense Department official, has already announced his candidacy for the seat.
"Politically speaking, we're still 14 months out, 15 months out. I think there's still plenty of time," Jolly said of his intention to take his time making a decision.
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Alex Leary contributed to this report.