Florida lieutenant governor nears U.S. Senate run as GOP field takes shape

Newly inaugurated Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, right, points to Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee in January.
Newly inaugurated Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, right, points to Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee in January. AP

Florida Republican Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera appears poised to enter the 2016 U.S. Senate race to replace Marco Rubio, telephoning political donors and activists over the past few days to gauge their support and indicate his strong interest in launching a bid, several sources told the Miami Herald.

Lopez-Cantera will have plenty of competition if he runs. On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach became the first major Republican to declare a candidacy. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Chumuckla, in the Panhandle, said he’s thinking about it. Others open to the idea are state Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville, also in the Panhandle; U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Tampa and former Attorney General Bill McCollum.

“America needs a new generation of leaders to address the big issues facing the country: alleviating the middle-class squeeze and promoting economic opportunity, confronting the significant national-security challenges threatening the safety of our people and reforming the culture of Washington, D.C.,” DeSantis said in a statement.

The Republican field has been in flux since the presumed favorite, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, passed on Rubio’s seat. The 36-year-old DeSantis graduated from Yale University and Harvard Law School and is a U.S. Navy veteran. He has been in Congress since 2013 and has established a conservative voting record.

A hypothetical DeSantis vs. Lopez-Cantera primary matchup could pit the GOP’s conservative activists against the party’s establishment. Three tea party-type political action committees — FreedomWorks, Club for Growth and Senate Conservatives Fund — endorsed DeSantis on Wednesday. Lopez-Cantera, the former Miami-Dade County property appraiser, would likely have a broader base from moderate but voter-rich South Florida.

Like Rubio, his close friend and fellow Cuban American, Lopez-Cantera has been a favorite of Miami auto magnate Norman Braman, a prominent benefactor. A “super PAC” to benefit Lopez-Cantera is in the works, sources told the Herald. Lopez-Cantera, 41, is already slated to introduce Rubio at the Miami-Dade Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day fundraising dinner next month.

Lopez-Cantera’s wife, Renee, works in the Miami Herald’s circulation department. They have two young daughters.

Two Miami Republican Hispanics running for president and Senate could be a problem for Democrats, who have long relied on winning big in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to counter conservative votes in Southwest and North Florida.

The only major Democratic Senate candidate so far is U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who grew up in Miami but represents Jupiter and is not well-known outside his district. U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando is mulling a run.

Lopez-Cantera was a behind-the-scenes presence in the Florida Capitol in the waning days of this year’s legislative session before the House abruptly adjourned. But legislative leaders have said that while Lopez-Cantera spoke with some senators, his conversations focused mainly on the House, whom the governor has recently sided with on Medicaid expansion, an issue that has fractured the GOP.