With no big names running and the presidential election contest drawing most of the media attention, Florida’s U.S. Senate race has been quiet so far.
One recent poll found that none of the candidates vying to replace Sen. Marco Rubio have enough name recognition to get “a valid measure of their favorability.”
Yet despite the contest’s low profile to date it could play a critical role in determining which party controls the Senate and is expected to be one of the marquee election battles in the country next year.
The race should start to pick up as the candidates hit the road to raise money and generate grassroots support. One GOP candidate was in Sarasota last week and another will speak to local Republicans on Wednesday.
Here are five things to watch for as momentum starts to build:
Rubio’s decision to seek the presidency means Florida has a rare open U.S. Senate seat. Political handicappers view the contest as a toss-up. Democrats say it’s one of the five they need to win back the Senate. But their plans were complicated when firebrand liberal congressman Alan Grayson jumped in to challenge U.S. Rep Patrick Murphy, the moderate choice of the Democratic establishment.
The contest was expected to attract a lot of attention nationally from both parties, but the primaries could interfere, said Nathan Gonzalez with The Rothenberg & Gonzalez Political Report. “Some Democrats are concerned that if Grayson is the nominee it will make it too difficult and we may not see a heavy party investment,” Rothenberg said. “Now if you talk to Grayson allies they’ll say that’s just sort of saber rattling and when it comes down to it the party wants to win the race.”
Grayson isn’t the only candidate viewed as more intensely partisan. Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis has been closely aligned with the Tea Party movement. DeSantis is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives that helped push Speaker John Boehner to resign and blocked his chief deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, from becoming speaker. With DeSantis and Grayson running, both Republicans and Democrats have clear choices between more moderate and more ideologically driven candidates.
That could present an intriguing dynamic in a year when anti-establishment candidates are surging in the presidential contest. Could the same mood sweep through the Senate race? “I think there is an anti-establishment thread in both parties,” Gonzalez said.
The GOP field already includes four candidates: DeSantis, U.S. Rep. David Jolly, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and businessman Todd Wilcox. But none are well known and the race is fluid. Jeff Atwater, the state’s chief financial officer, said last week he is considering joining the contest. Former attorney general Bill McCollum also has expressed interest.
The large field makes the race more interesting, said Christian Ziegler, a Republican state committeeman from Sarasota. “It’s kind of wide open, which is exciting,” Ziegler said. “There’s not an anointed candidate which I think is always good.”
The Democratic field seems more settled. In addition to Grayson and Murphy it includes Pam Keith, a lawyer and former Navy lieutenant. But open seats bring people out of the woodwork. Could there be another Jeff Greene — the billionaire who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Senate nomination in 2010 — out there?
Maybe no politician other than Barack Obama came into the Senate with as much hype as Rubio, who used the platform to vault into the ranks of GOP superstars by defeating a sitting governor and showcasing his skills as a charismatic speaker. Republicans will have a hard time replacing him. “I think he casts a shadow over the race,” Gonzalez said.
So is there another Rubio in the contest? Some are pointing to Lopez-Cantera, another charismatic young Hispanic and a politician with close ties to Rubio. It’s impossible to tell which GOP candidate will break away from the pack, but it seems clear that this race won’t offer the same opportunities that Rubio had to stand out. The battle between Rubio and former Gov. Charlie Crist presented a clear contrast that will be hard to make in a crowded primary field.
It may not be until March, after grassroots activists have turned their attention away from Florida’s presidential primary, that the Senate race hits full stride, Ziegler predicted. Until then, much of the focus will be on raising money and building a campaign infrastructure.
The GOP candidates hail from different parts of the state and the primary may be determined, in part, by who builds up the strongest regional base of support. Eventually, there also could be fierce ideological clashes. “It’s kind of similar to the presidential race, we have choices and clear differences between the candidates,” Ziegler said. The attacks already have begun on the Democratic side but have been slower to emerge among the Republicans. There does not appear to be a clear favorite in either contest.
“Anybody who says on either side who the nominee will be with any certainty is lying,” Gonzalez said.
Residence: Miami Background: Bachelor’s degree from University of Miami, elected to the Florida House in 2004, House majority leader in 2011 and 2012, elected Miami-Dade County property appraiser in 2012, appointed lieutenant governor of Florida in 2014.
U.S. Rep. David Jolly
Residence: Indian Shores
Background: Bachelor’s degree from Emory University and law degree from George Mason University, general counsel for former U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, lobbyist and founder of Three Bridges Advisors, executive in private equity firm, elected to Congress in 2014.
U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis
Residence: Ponte Vedra Beach
Background: Bachelor’s degree from Yale University and law degree from Harvard University, Navy veteran and JAG officer, elected to Congress in 2012.
Background: Bachelor’s degree from University of Tampa, U.S. Army captain and Green Beret, CIA officer, founder of military contracting company Patriot Defense Group.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy
Background: Bachelor’s degree from University of Miami, accountant and executive with family’s construction company, elected to Congress in 2012.
U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson
Background: Bachelor’s and law degree from Harvard University, former president of IDT Corp., trial attorney, elected to Congress in 2008 and lost his reelection bid in 2010 before returning to Congress in 2012.
Residence: North Palm Beach
Background: Bachelor’s degree from U.C. California Davis and law degree from Boston College, Navy veteran and JAG officer, in-house legal counsel for Florida Power & Light.