The last poll I saw showed 37 percent of Florida Republican voters undecided in the U.S. Senate primary. The top vote-getter, with 34 percent of the vote, was Connie Mack IV. Mack subsequently announced the race was over and that he would be the nominee against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.
The arrogance of Mack’s proclamation and his refusal to debate other Republican candidates was surprising considering the gravitas of his opponents. 1. George LeMieux, who filled the seat of U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez and earned accolades for effectiveness from senior colleagues. 2. Former Rep. Dave Weldon, who served in the U.S. House for several terms and is a practicing physician. 3. Mike McCalister, a military veteran who ran ran for governor in 2010 and reached double digits despite his lack of funding and name recognition.
So what led to Mack’s hubris? Could it be the high-profile endorsements from Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and most of Florida's Republican Cabinet members? Could it be the name recognition he enjoys from sharing a name with his father, a two-term U.S. senator?
Mack’s refusal to debate should have elicited disapproval from Florida's Republican voters and political elite. Instead, he was rewarded for avoiding a public vetting.
This week Mack sought and received the endorsement of financially powerful Freedom Works, a signal that the establishment had settled on a candidate. And casino boss Sheldon Adelson, the major benefactor of Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, committed $1 million to a pro-Mack super PAC.
These events from influential political operatives outside Florida had a tremendous impact on the choice we now face in the U.S. Senate race. For on Wednesday, LeMieux ended his bid, saying, “The establishment has thrown their support behind my competitor, Connie Mack. Ahead of us in the polls, the Mack name enjoys widespread recognition that can only be matched with substantial advertising or the opportunity to debate on statewide television. Advertising, which our finances cannot support, and debates, which my competitor won’t agree to.
“It is not my nature to step aside, but there is a reality to running a statewide race in Florida. Without the resources or the opportunity to debate, our message simply cannot be heard.”
In full disclosure, I am an early supporter of George. And I agree that when the Republican establishment solidifies behind a primary candidate, the electorate is robbed of the opportunity to vet and select the best candidates based on issues, work ethic, personality, and other factors voters find personally significant.
While I understand the need to assess and continually reassess a campaign's chance of success and ability to compete, the influence of money and big-name support carries much more weight than hard work, competence and knowledge of the issues.
As a candidate in a similar position in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, I understand the decision to leave the race when your campaign can't effectively compete financially. It seems at the time to be a good decision, and maybe the only sensible one.
In an effort to be a good team player, George went on to say, "I know that sometimes for the good of the party, and the good of the nation, a candidate has to bow out gracefully. In order to have the best chance to defeat Bill Nelson and put the Senate in Republican hands, today we will end our campaign. To continue would only hurt our chances in the fall, and that is not something that I will risk. Connie Mack will be our nominee. He has my support. "
On this statement I cannot agree. This is what is wrong with our political system. The political elite, the very wealthy from outside our state, and the establishment, should not determine who our party nominee is. And those who try should not be rewarded.
Individuals should decide if they want to run, they should qualify to run and then voters should decide based on the attributes and performance of those candidates. Elections should not be purchased and candidates should not be pushed aside to clear the field for the general election.
If Republican voters allow their choices to be taken from them, their power to express their voice, their opinions, their beliefs, is greatly diminished. This erosion of participation from voters is dangerous to our representative democracy.
I'm not willing to cede my choice of representation to a Las Vegas casino boss or an organization with unlimited and undisclosed money from who-knows-what special interest.
Despite the formidable challenge of establishment support, super PAC funding and outside influences, Weldon indicated he will remain in the race and believes his campaign will benefit from LeMieux’s exit.
It is my hope the other candidates will remain in the race, too, giving Florida Republicans the opportunity to cast a ballot in the U.S. Senate primary. And shame on any candidate who won't come forward and participate in a meaningful debate so that voters can see who they are and what they stand for.
And voters have the responsibility to think for themselves or they will get what they deserve.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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