Naples Daily News: Connie Mack jolts two races with Senate bid

Morning guys! I’ve been working more and blogging less (sorry about that). I had the chance to speak with the good people at the Naples Daily News about Connie Mack’s entrance into the GOP Senate primary to challenge Bill Nelson.

I haven’t decided who I’m going to support in this race.

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News that Rep. Connie Mack is running for the U.S. Senate rocked the Republican field Thursday and ignited local speculation over his abandoned congressional re-election bid.

Mack’s office confirmed his Senate ambitions Wednesday night, and by Thursday morning Tammy Hall, the District 4 Lee County Commissioner, declared her candidacy for the 14th congressional district. Two other area political figures said with Mack gone they were considering jumping into the race, and rumors circulated that others could join.

So far, incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has led all of the Republican challengers for Senate in the polls. Analysts say the entry of an experienced elected official with high name recognition could change that.

“A lot of voters are just unexcited about the current crop of candidates that we have,” said Frank Torres, a political strategist in Orlando.

In March, Mack said he would not seek the Senate seat for family reasons but changed his mind and began making phone calls for support and assembling a campaign team, said his spokesman, David James.

“Connie has been committed to beating Bill, and no one had emerged who could do that,” James said. “You can expect a more formal announcement from Connie in the weeks to come.”

Mack joins Republican contenders including Army Col. Mike McCalister, former state Rep. Adam Hasner, former Ruth’s Chris Steak House CEO Craig Miller and former Sen. George LeMieux.

If Mack’s entry shook up the statewide race, it deeply transformed the race for his district, which covers Fort Myers and Naples.

The four-term congressman was the clear front-runner for re-election in 2012 — despite criticism for opposing the Arizona immigration law and complaints that he spends too much time in California where his wife, Mary Bono Mack, is a U.S. congresswoman.

Only three others had filed to oppose him: Naples attorney Joe Davidow, former small business owner Timothy Rossano and Democratic businessman James Roach, who failed to unseat Mack in 2010, earning 27 percent of the vote.

“It wasn’t something that I anticipated,” Davidow said. “I think it’s something that’s going to change the nature of the election, but it’s certainly not going to change my platform.”

Hall’s proclamation came quickly. She said she had stewed over the decision since May when she formed an exploratory committee and began meeting with constituents.

“There’s a frustration with the direction Washington is going in,” Hall told the Daily News.

In Hall’s official announcement, the seven-year commissioner boasted $90 million in cuts to Lee County government in the last three years and pledged to bring a similar less-government philosophy to Washington.

Burt Saunders, a former state senator who has challenged Mack for his congressional seat, and former state representative Dudley Goodlette said they were now seriously considering a bid.

“I’ve had some people call me today, and when I’ve had some spare minutes, I’m making some calls,” Goodlette said. “We’ll make a decision in the next few days.”

He acknowledged that as the Legislature redraws Florida’s political map in redistricting, where exactly the 14th District will fall is a “moving target” until next year’s lawmaking session ends in early March.

“Until then it’s really difficult for someone from Collier County to really know what they’re running for,” said Saunders, who ran as a no-party candidate in 2008 and fell about 170,000 votes shy of Mack’s 225,000 votes.

Earlier this year, other high-profile Republicans in Collier and Lee counties were said to have floated the idea of replacing Mack — among them, Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, Naples City Councilman Gary Price and Chauncey Goss, son of former U.S. Rep. Porter Goss.

Price said Thursday he will not run. Judah and Goss could not be reached.

State Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and Tom Grady, the commissioner of the Florida Office of Financial Regulation, each said they will not run.

But Grady told the Daily News he would endorse Mack for Senate.

“Connie brings a decided experience and fiscal conservative flavor to the race,” Grady said.

Reaction from the field of current Senate candidates ranged from welcoming to critical to indifferent. McCalister acknowledged Mack’s experience in Washington while LeMieux chided that “he voted to raise his own pay several times” and “joined Bill Nelson in voting for a highway bill that contained 6,376 earmarks.”

Nelson’s office steered clear of the fray.

“We have no reaction,” spokesman Bryan Gulley wrote in an email to the Daily News. “Nelson remains focused on his work in the Senate. As he’s said many times, if you do your job, then the politics will take care of itself.”

By Ben Wolford

Connie Mack jumped into the Senate race on Thursday