Scrambling U.S. Senate candidates push campaigns into their rivals' turf

Todd Wilcox, a U.S. Senate candidate, center, speaks recently to members and guests of the Plant City Republican Women Federated Women’s Club. He is running in a statewide Republican primary. [DAVID W DOONAN | Special To The Times]
Todd Wilcox, a U.S. Senate candidate, center, speaks recently to members and guests of the Plant City Republican Women Federated Women’s Club. He is running in a statewide Republican primary. [DAVID W DOONAN | Special To The Times]
Published May 9, 2016

During a recent stop in Tampa, U.S. Senate candidate Ron DeSantis chatted about growing up in Dunedin. "This is a place I know well, and we are going to be here often," he told 50 people at a hotel meeting room near Tampa International Airport.

You'd never know the congressman from just outside of Jacksonville was barnstorming on the turf of a top rival in the Republican primary: U.S Rep. David Jolly, who represents most of Pinellas County.

It's a popular campaign strategy lately. None of the five Republicans seeking to replace U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is well-known in his own territory, let alone statewide. That has emboldened each to tread into their rivals' home base, eager to find supporters in a primary battle suddenly just two months away from the first ballots being cast.

Two weeks ago, Miami's Carlos Lopez-Cantera spent a big part of his week toiling in Brandon, Ybor City and New Port Richey, an area in the shadows of the congressional district Jolly has held since 2014. While setting up shop in Tampa Bay, Bradenton homebuilder Carlos Beruff has been trying to establish a foothold in Lopez-Cantera's home county. On Tuesday, Beruff, who launched his campaign in Miami in February, was back in South Florida again meeting with GOP activists.

Around the same time, Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox was in Jacksonville building support and raising money in an area DeSantis considers his back yard. Jolly later this month has a pair of events planned for Jacksonville. DeSantis, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, lives in neighboring St. Johns County and has represented parts of northeast Florida in Congress since 2012. DeSantis, for his part, was in Tampa holding court with military veterans less than 7 miles from where Wilcox went to high school and considers part of his base.

"They all have a perceived base, but I'm not sure any of them have a real base and the others are clearly out to test that," said Mark Proctor, a veteran Tampa Bay-based political consultant who isn't working for any of the five campaigns.

That's a big contrast to six years ago when then-Republican Charlie Crist and Rubio were battling it out in a GOP primary before Crist switched to being an independent. Crist, in Pinellas, and Rubio, in Miami, each tethered their campaign to a strong home base.

Proctor said none of the candidates this year has been on the ballot enough to be considered locks in their back yards. DeSantis and Jolly have been in Congress less than four years. Neither Wilcox, an Army veteran who was a Green Beret, nor Beruff has ever run for office. And while Lopez-Cantera has been on ballot in seven consecutive election cycles in Miami-Dade, none of those contests included a tough Republican primary battle, except in 2002 when he narrowly lost his first Florida House race.

The five are battling to replace Rubio, who did not file for re-election and instead sought unsuccessfully to run for president. The winner of the Aug. 30 Senate primary will take on the winner of the Democratic primary battle between U.S. Reps. Alan Grayson of Orlando and Patrick Murphy of Jupiter.

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The first ballots for the Senate primaries will begin going to military and overseas voters in mid-July, adding a sense of urgency for a campaign that, so far, has flown under the radar while voters are preoccupied with the presidential primaries.

Senate candidates have recently picked up their pace, venturing into every corner of the state to meet with party activists, financial backers and increasing their profiles in the media. But public polling shows they have a lot of work to do. A poll released in March by the Washington Post and Univision showed an overwhelming eight out of every 10 Republican respondents asked about the GOP primary could not, or would not, say who they will support. The remaining 20 percent gave none of the five candidates a clear advantage.

The candidates themselves are quick to boast about their base. Speaking to the Pasco County Republicans in April, Lopez-Cantera three times pointed to his ties to Miami-Dade as a key reason why Republicans statewide should support him. Lopez-Cantera served eight years in the Florida House and was elected Miami-Dade property appraiser in 2012 in a countywide, non-partisan, race. In 2014, he was on Gov. Rick Scott's re-election ticket and is now the state's lieutenant governor. He said his history in Miami-Dade — the state's largest county — would give him the best chance of beating a Democrat in November.

"I'm someone who has proven that he can win not only in the largest county in the state, but in the entire state of Florida," he told nearly 450 Republicans in New Port Richey.

But his opponents aren't intimidated, noting that Lopez-Cantera has never faced a tough Republican primary fight. In fact, in his four successful campaigns for the House from 2004 to 2010, he had just one primary challenge, and that was a blowout in which his opponent didn't receive 20 percent of the vote.

That partly explains why Beruff has been in Miami once every two weeks since he jumped into the race. Beruff, who was born in Miami, is not shy about promoting his Cuban heritage as a way to chip into Lopez-Cantera's perceived stronghold. In his typical stump speech in and out of Miami, Beruff spends considerable time talking about his mother being from Cuba and her having to go into hiding after her role in failed attacks on the presidential palace on March 13, 1957.

"I am one of the lucky people in the United States because I had a mom who was very brave," Beruff said during a speech in Sarasota two weeks ago.

But just as Lopez-Cantera's back yard isn't discouraging opponents from venturing in, neither is Beruff's in southwest Florida. DeSantis attended Charlotte County's Lincoln Day Dinner trying to build connections and Wilcox just finished a recent foray into Manatee County to speak to a Republican Party club. He has more stops planned, said Erin Isaac, Wilcox's spokeswoman.

"He's not afraid to walk into any room," Isaac said.

Tampa Bay political consultant Anthony Pedicini said none of the candidates has a lock in any part of Florida. That means the whole state is fair game — especially Tampa Bay and the Orlando areas, which makes up more than 50 percent of the Republican primary electorate. He said the candidates need to invest as much time as possible in those markets and build relationships with local political leaders.

"They need to be less fixated on where their opponents are from and more on where the voters are from," Pedicini said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.