Congressmen too busy in D.C. to campaign at home

Rep. David Jolly of Florida talks on his cell phone as members of the House of Representatives leave after a voice vote to approve a short-term spending bill in December.
Rep. David Jolly of Florida talks on his cell phone as members of the House of Representatives leave after a voice vote to approve a short-term spending bill in December. AP

Todd Wilcox was stumping before Republican activists in Flagler County; Carlos Lopez-Cantera was mingling with potential voters at a doughnut shop in Ocala and Carlos Beruff was heading for Miami to meet with key political players.

But while that trio of U.S. Senate candidates has been hitting the trail hard, logging hundreds of miles this week building support, two of their key GOP rivals — congressmen David Jolly and Ron DeSantis — are once again stuck in Washington, D.C., off the campaign trail much of the week because of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s aggressive schedule for early summer voting.

For five of the next six weeks, Jolly and DeSantis will spend the bulk of their time in D.C., while their opponents fan out across Florida drumming up votes.

They, like other House members running for re-election or higher office, are left with the choice of remaining in Washington or else miss votes and face the type of criticism that haunted Sen. Marco Rubio, who missed 73 of 105 votes in the six months before dropping out of the presidential race earlier this year.

For Florida’s Senate campaign, the voting binge comes at a key point in the primary calendar.

With the first ballots in the primary race going out in just over a month, all five of the little-known GOP candidates are struggling to build name identification and strategize with party activists before the Aug. 30 primary.

“There are a lot of events we just can’t attend back home,” said Jolly, a Pinellas County Republican. “But my day job comes first.”

Jolly said he’s had to turn down many speaking engagements in Florida because they happen during the week when Congress has been in session.

DeSantis, a Republican from Ponte Vedra Beach, similarly said the schedule has been a “challenge” but said he’s doing the job he was elected to do and has no complaint.

Both of the leading candidates in the Democratic primary for the same Senate seat are also members of Congress — Reps. Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson. They, too, face the same obstacle, but they are both in the same boat and don’t have three other candidates roaming Florida taking advantage of their absence like Jolly and DeSantis do.

Both Jolly and DeSantis are well aware of the criticism Rubio took during his presidential campaign for missing votes. Jolly has refused to miss any votes since the start of the year, making all 281 so far as of Thursday morning. DeSantis is almost perfect, having missed just three of the 281.

DeSantis said he can’t promise he won’t miss other votes because of scheduling issues, but he said he’s dedicated to getting legislation passed. He said more important than telling Republican activists at a meeting what he can do, is showing them. DeSantis said he’s working on several bills, including one to help get service dogs to veterans to help them cope with what they saw on the battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq. Getting that bill moving is more important than anything he could say on the trail, he said.

“At the end of the day, I’m fighting for the things I said I’d fight for,” DeSantis said. “My actions will speak louder than words.”

By trying to do their jobs in D.C., however, both Jolly and DeSantis open themselves up to more criticism from their opponents in an election cycle defined by who is part of the establishment. In a television interview on Jacksonville’s WJXT last week, Lopez-Cantera was quick to remind viewers that DeSantis and Jolly are both members of Congress and put them in with “Washington Republicans.” Wilcox and Beruff have similarly attacked Jolly and DeSantis for being part of Congress.

Typically in summer election cycles, members of Congress have a lighter schedule to give them more time to campaign for re-election. But because the Democratic and Republican presidential conventions were moved to July, House leaders had to adjust before the August recess. The result is a more aggressive than usual schedule to start summer.

The busy schedule is temporary. When the last vote is cast on July 15, members of Congress won’t have to return to Washington, D.C., until Sept. 6.

DeSantis said if anything, he thinks Congress should have a much busier schedule. During the first three months of the year, the House did not have any votes during five of the weeks, he said.

“That was not the way to seize the moment,” DeSantis said. “I wish I controlled the schedule.”

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.