Marc Caputo: Sen. Rubio’s ambitions and Florida’s political dominoes

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Marco Rubio is expected to run for president. All that’s really in doubt is the year: 2016, 2020, 2024? What’s not uncertain is that the U.S. senator has a tough decision to make: does he make a longshot bid and give up his seat or does he run for president and then seek reelection?
DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Marco Rubio is expected to run for president. All that’s really in doubt is the year: 2016, 2020, 2024? What’s not uncertain is that the U.S. senator has a tough decision to make: does he make a longshot bid and give up his seat or does he run for president and then seek reelection? AP

Marco Rubio is expected to run for president.

All that’s really in doubt is the year: 2016, 2020, 2024?

What’s not uncertain is that the U.S. senator has a tough decision to make: does he make a longshot bid and give up his seat or does he run for president and then seek reelection?

Either way, there’s increasing political chatter that Rubio is well-positioned to run for governor in 2018.

And then, if he wins, there’s a good chance Gov. Rubio will run for president — 2020 would be attractive if a beatable Democrat is president. The next presidential year, 2024, an open-seat year, would be more likely. He’ll only be 52.

Rubio is offering few public clues about what’s next.

“At the end of the day, it’s a very personal decision,” Rubio told reporters last week when asked about a presidential bid. “You don’t make this decision on the basis of political advisers. You make it on your own.”

Political players from Tallahassee to Washington want a decision made soon.

They’re already whispering with each other and anonymously talking to the news media as they anticipate how the political dominoes could fall. They have to. Future control of the U.S. Senate, the state of the presidential race and political power in the nation’s largest swing state could hang in the balance.

While leaving some wiggle room, Rubio has all but said he wouldn’t run for reelection if he runs for president. He’ll have to face strong candidates like his friend and mentor, former Gov. Jeb Bush, or his friend Mitt Romney.

Rubio already has a reelection committee with more than $3 million on hand — money that can be flipped over into a presidential campaign. So, in one sense, Rubio is already running for both offices now.

But he has to decide by the first week of May 2016, when federal candidates need to qualify in Florida, which prohibits a person from seeking two offices simultaneously on the same ballot. By then, voters in the four early-caucus and primary states will have weighed in.

The moment Rubio announces a presidential bid he’ll create the appearance of a pending political vacancy. Some politicians will try to fill it in the same way nature abhors a vacuum.

Dominoes will start tumbling.

Democrats will see an opportunity for an easier-to-win seat. Washington Republicans will go from protecting an incumbent (relatively easy) to backing a newcomer for an open seat (harder). To give fellow Republicans time to campaign for his seat, there’s pressure on Rubio to make a decision early and stick to it.

There’s more pressure from Rubio’s fellow Republicans because of the Florida GOP’s embarrassment of riches. The governor, lieutenant governor, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner are all Republicans. All have ambitions for higher or other offices. So do former office holders in Tallahassee and a few less-mentioned members of congress.

Attorney General Pam Bondi (R)

The joke about the abbreviation “AG” is that it means “almost governor.” But of the Cabinet members, Bondi is probably the least-interested in running for governor — or Senate in 2016, when she’ll have two more years left in her final term.

“Pam Bondi remains a formidable statewide candidate, but right now she’s focused on continuing to protect the people of Florida as attorney general,” said Adam Goodman, a top adviser.

What about 2018? Goodman wouldn’t speculate. But incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson — the only statewide elected Democrat — better watch out. In midterm elections, Florida’s electorate traditionally becomes more Republican leaning because fewer Democratic-leaning voters show.

CFO Jeff Atwater (R)

Count this former state Senate president as a top contender for Rubio’s senate seat, should it come open in 2016.

In 2012, when Nelson was starting to polish off his third weak GOP candidate in a row, party elders and insiders approached Atwater and asked him to run in the Republican primary against then-U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, who ran one of the worst statewide campaigns in Florida. Atwater, whose caution underscores his past as a community banker, declined and ran for reelection.

Florida has no resign-to-run law, so Atwater could seek the U.S. Senate, use his statewide office to leverage campaign donations and still keep his CFO seat should he lose in 2016. If Rubio stays in the Senate and runs for governor, Atwater will have a hard decision to make.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam (R)

Yes, 2018 is three years away. But for this former member of congress, it’s already here. He’s essentially already running for governor. That puts the former congressman on a crash-course with Rubio should the senator decide to run for the office.

By name ID and donor network, Rubio probably has the edge right now. But Putnam comes from an old Florida family and is well-liked by grassroots Republicans across the state. Also, unlike Atwater, Putnam looks laser-focused on winning the governor’s mansion. And desire counts for something in politics.

Gov. Rick Scott (R)

Insiders say Scott wants to become president. It’s anyone’s guess how a politician with such low favorability ratings who has never captured 50 percent of the vote in Florida can win nationwide (or in Florida in a presidential election year, when the electorate is more liberal-leaning).

There’s a small possibility he could run in 2018 for U.S. Senate against Nelson. Independently wealthy and a great fundraiser, Scott would be a force to be reckoned with in a federal race, where there are strict limits on raising outside campaign money. Scott, who wouldn’t have to leave office to run for Nelson’s seat, also entertained running for Senate in 2010 before deciding to seek the governor’s mansion.

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R)

Well-liked by Scott and a close friend of Rubio’s from Miami-Dade, Lopez-Cantera is starting to generate buzz as a future candidate for state CFO in 2018.

If Rubio runs for governor and wins (and remains in the U.S. Senate), Lopez-Cantera is the odds-on favorite to be appointed to fill out the balance of Rubio’s U.S. Senate seat (depending on when Rubio would officially resign).

U.S. Rep Gwen Graham (D)

Daughter of Florida’s popular former governor and U.S. senator, Bob Graham, she looks like statewide campaign material.

Graham won a Republican-leaning seat. What made the win more impressive: she did it in a Republican-leaning year against an incumbent, who are always hard to beat.

Graham could either seek Rubio’s seat (which her father once held), Nelson’s seat if he retires or run for governor.

U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D)

Murphy has the same options as Graham. But, judging from Democrats’ chatter, there’s a good chance Murphy will run for Rubio’s seat regardless of what the incumbent does. 2016 is a more auspicious year for Democrats because their voters tend to show in greater numbers in presidential election years.

As a Democrat in a Republican-leaning seat, Murphy has shown he can raise money and win competitive races, first against firebrand incumbent Allen West and then former state Rep. Carl Domino.

Bob Buckhorn (D)

Tampa’s mayor did essentially nothing to help Democrat Charlie Crist, who lost last year to Scott by 1.08 percentage points. Buckhorn’s self-sidelining led many to speculate he wanted a clean shot at the governor’s mansion in 2018. An open Senate seat in 2016 could change his calculus.

Former House Speaker Will Weatherford (R)

Beloved by the Republican establishment, the 35-year-old has strong political connections (his father-in-law is another former well-liked speaker, Allan Bense) and is favored by many in Tallahassee to run in 2016 or 2018.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R)

A Sarasota congressman since 2007, Buchanan’s personal wealth would go a long way to helping him win a Senate seat that he has, at times, talked of seeking.

U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis (R)

A Jacksonville congressman since 2013, DeSantis has a resume that’s almost too good to be true: degrees from Yale and Harvard and a military background. But his political contributions to GOP U.S. Senate candidates in 2014 caught people’s attention and led to speculation about a future Senate bid.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly (R)

Insiders like to buzz about the new congressman because he beat former Democratic state CFO Alex Sink last year in a special election in a competitive St. Petersburg-based seat, giving him the quality of a giant slayer. Chances are, Jolly will stay put.

The same, certainly, can’t be said of Rubio.