Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos' abrupt withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race was a win for fellow Republican candidate Adam Hasner in every respect but one: Headline grabbing.
The Haridopolos announcement today stepped all over the Hasner news that he racked up three major endorsements from conservative groups: American Future Fund PAC, Concerned Women for America and FreedomWorks. Taken together, the groups represent a solid base of the Republican electorate, replete with e/mailing lists, donor contacts, volunteers and money for independent expenditures.
Again, the news of the endorsements getting buried is the big loss for Hasner, who has been eating up endorsements from the conservative movement and winning tea-party straw polls in recent weeks.
Still, it's not a cakewalk for Hasner.
Haridopolos and former Sen. George LeMieux were going to siphon moderate/center right/establishment votes from each other. So LeMieux can pick up those more centrist and/or left-leaning votes that might have gone to Haridopolos. And Tampa Bay's Mike McCallister is getting a little tea-party buzz that could mean he takes votes from Hasner. But McCallister's not much of a force (right now). Newcomer Craig Miller is even less of a threat. He came in third in a three-way Republican primary in a Central Florida congressional seat last year.
Bottom line: Haridopolos' exit makes the race cleaner, easier. Hasner can more easily make this a two-man race. Make that a three-man race.
Enter Charlie Crist,
LeMieux's former boss and buddy who's widely reviled by the right for his decision to leave the Republican Party and wage an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against Sen. Marco Rubio last year.
"I'm a Charlie Crist Republican," LeMieux once said in 2009 before Crist appointed him to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Mel Martinez.
Those are tough words to take back in a GOP primary. It's a tough legacy to shake. LeMieux's best argument against Hasner is the one he's using now --the fact that, while he was in the U.S. Senate, he had a solidly conservative record. So he can be trusted.
Nevertheless, the Charlie Crist quote is a killer in a primary. Then there's the fact that LeMieux helped secure Republican votes to make Jim Greer the party's chairman on Crist's behalf. That's not something LeMieux will put on flyers.
But Hasner will. Hasner is itching to use it all with deadly effect now that he doesn't have Haridopolos to kick around anymore.
"For today, everyone benefits, but Hasner benefits the most over the next 90 days. If he capitalizes, he will be the front runner by October," said Brett Doster, a Tallahassee Republican consultant. "With Haridopolos out, Hasner can more easily re-shape this race as a repeat of the Crist vs. Rubio fight. And the similarities are striking."
"LeMieux was Charlie's chief lieutenant on the campaign. Hasner was Rubio's chief lieutenant in the House. LeMieux was Crist's mouthpiece as chief of staff. Hasner was Rubio's mouthpiece as majority leader. LeMieux was Crist's political general in the Crist vs. Rubio legislative battles. Hasner was Rubio's political general in the Crist vs. Rubio legislative battles."
"It should make for a fascinating year."
Caveat: Doster was never a Crist fan, having worked for Republican opponent Tom Gallagher in 2006. But these days, there are exceedingly few Crist fans in the Republican Party.
Another caveat: forecasting a frontrunner is pretty dangerous stuff in Florida. Crist was the Senate race frontrunner for months. Now Crist is an ex governor, former candidate and former Republican.
A campaign still needs to be waged.
There's Tallahassee lobbyist buzz over recruiting former House Speaker Allan Bense, but he probably doesn't have the heart or time for it (he passed up his chance in 2006). Then there's Nick Loeb, who briefly ran for Hasner's state House seat in 2010 but withdrew. But Loeb, who tweeted he was looking "more closely at the race" due to Haridopolos departure, doesn't seem hungry enough (though he did invent the onion crunch).
LeMieux has also proved to be resilient. He's also a tough fundraiser, pulling in $950k last quarter. Hasner only hauled in $560k. But Hasner's folks suspect that a big chunk of LeMieux's money can't be touched because it's earmarked for the general, while much of Hasner's funds are primary-only dollars. Not true, say LeMieux folks; 80 percent of the candidate's money is earmarked for the primary. So he definitely outraised Hasner in the general and primary.
Hasner still needs to do better to make a convincing case that he's the guy. And he better hope that a major self-funder/outsider similar to Rick Scott doesn't get in the race and mess up his tea party.