Senate primaries give voters few options

Published July 14, 2012

The Aug. 14 primary elections for U.S. Senate hold little excitement for Republicans or Democrats. The focus already is on the November general election, when Democrat Bill Nelson will be seeking a third term.

Weldon for Republicans

A year ago, Republican candidates for U.S. Senate eager to take on Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson filled a stage. Now it's impossible to find two of them in the same room. The field weeded itself out, with the most promising possibilities never getting in the race and the others giving up or leaving for safer races. U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers has the famous name, the endorsements, the PAC money — and questionable work habits, a sense of entitlement and an undistinguished record in Congress. Former U.S. Rep. Dave Weldon of Indialantic is a long shot, but he has more experience in Congress, a stronger record of accomplishments and a reputation as a more serious-minded lawmaker.

Weldon, 58, is a doctor who was first elected to Congress from Florida's Space Coast in 1994 — the year of Newt Gingrich, the Contract With America and the Republican takeover of the House. He served 14 years before deciding not to seek re-election in 2008 and return to his medical practice. Weldon served on the Appropriations Committee and was a thoughtful expert on health issues. He was an effective advocate for the space program and his district, bringing home tens of millions of dollars to create jobs and advance exploration. A reliably conservative vote, Weldon was respected by Democrats as well as Republicans and worked across party lines on issues such as autism and legislation relating to Israel.

While taking pride in supporting efforts that balanced the federal budget during several years of Bill Clinton's presidency, Weldon also supported the Bush-era tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Medicare prescription drug program that increased deficit spending. He is a social conservative as well as a fiscal conservative, and we disagreed with his efforts to have Congress intervene in the Terri Schiavo feeding tube issue in 2005. We also disagree with his opposition to abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research.

But Weldon is a thoughtful legislator who recognizes the serious challenges facing the nation and is willing to realistically confront them. He predictably opposes the Affordable Care Act but says some of its features are worth saving. He is clear-eyed about the federal deficit and the costs of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, and he is willing to consider raising some revenue and tax reform that closes loopholes as part of an overall package.

Mack, 44, has the reputation of an opportunist with an unremarkable record in Congress. The son of the former U.S. senator, he left the Legislature and moved across the state to the Fort Myers area to run for an open U.S. House seat in 2004. He has the expected conservative voting record, opposing the federal stimulus, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial regulation reforms. His rhetoric is harsher now on immigration than Weldon's. While Mack initially voiced appropriate concerns about Arizona's immigration law and oil drilling off Florida's coast, he later adjusted his position on both to reflect the party line. Mack's deficit reduction plan is built on simple math of reducing spending by 1 percent per year for six years followed by an overall spending cap, but it lacks specifics and intellectual vigor.

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Beyond his policy positions, Mack's approach to public service does not inspire confidence. He refused to debate his Republican primary opponents or meet with editorial boards, including this one. By one measure, he has missed more than twice as many votes in the House as the average member since taking office. There also remain questions about how much time he spends in his district.

A third candidate, military retiree and tree farmer Mike McCalister, has been in the race much longer than Mack or Weldon and ran for governor in 2010. McCalister, 60, has a commanding presence on stage and talks broadly about the intersection of national security and the economy in a global view, but he is not a reasonable option for Republicans in a primary that is awfully light on attractive alternatives.

In the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Dave Weldon.

Nelson for Democrats

Incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, 69, faces token opposition in the primary and has been stockpiling money for the general election. He has a long record of valuable public service, from serving in the Legislature to the U.S. House to state insurance commissioner to his two terms in the Senate.

Cautious by nature, Nelson is a moderate Democratic voice who has voted with the Obama administration on big issues such as the economic stimulus and health care reform. But he also has stood up to party leaders to protect Florida's interests on issues such as oil drilling, the BP oil spill and space exploration. In recent days, he has supported extending the Bush-era tax cuts for anyone earning less than $1 million instead President Barack Obama's proposal extending the cuts only to those earning less than $250,000.

Glenn Burkett, 62, unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate two years ago and is trying again. He has sold nutritional supplements in southwest Florida on the Internet, and he promotes green energy and wellness. But he is not a viable candidate.

In the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Bill Nelson.