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Nancy Smith

Building a Party Bench: Lively GOP Shows How It's Done

April 14, 2015 - 6:00pm

Stand back and take a good look at the early days of the 2016 U.S. Senate race in Florida. Can you see it?

The Democrats' formula for killing their team spirit, for leaving their bench emptier than a beer keg after a rugby match ... it's as plain as the nose on your face.

And the Republicans? Christmas in April. An embarrassment of riches.

Everything the Republican Party of Florida does right to fuel its engine for races to come, and the Florida Democratic Party does wrong to squash potential rising stars was showcased Tuesday and Wednesday.

Look at the excitement to run for Senate among the red team. CFO Jeff Atwater, who had polled impressively out of the gate, excused himself -- and all of a sudden an army piled out of a phone booth. Wednesday especially was an anything-is-possible kind of day for any Republican leader with gumption, a dream, and a sense of commitment and adventure.

It isn't just that Republicans have prevailed in state-level politics for nearly two decades. True, that kind of dominance has given them leaders to burn. But it's the way the GOP handles them, the breadth they're given, the freedom to strut -- at least for a time. Nobody is fawning over any of them, but they're treated with respect.

What's not to like if you're a Republican with an eye to move up in elected office?

In 20 years the only exception to this I've seen is Rick Scott, who in many ways has been the exception to most rules. Scott came out of nowhere in 2010, and when he did, you might remember, establishment Republicans and the media chased after him like Hagar the Horrible and his bloodthirsty Huns in the old "What's in Your Wallet" commercial.

On Wednesday it seemed as if half of Republican World had declared/launched trial balloons/expressed some interest in taking the seat Marco Rubio won so commandingly five years ago. The beauty of it was, some of the participants were expected, some weren't.

Former House Speaker Will Weatherford, expected in, said, no, I'm out.But U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, also expected in, told Sunshine State News he's "thinking about it." U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a favorite of conservatives, is leaning toward a Senate run. So is U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan. So, probably, are U.S. Rep. Curt Clawson, former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

But the unexpected, out-of-the-blue show-ups declaring their interest Tuesday and Wednesday -- good men all -- nevertheless blew a lot of us away: former Senate President Don Gaetz, former Attorney General Bill McCollum and U.S. Rep. David Jolly.

Wait a minute! David Jolly? The David Jolly who was elected to Congress for the first time last year? The David Jolly who two years ago was a congressional aide? That David Jolly has the audacity to think he can run for senator in 2016?You bet he does and more power to him. This is what I'm talking about.

A free-for-all. A chance for Florida's4,182,150 registered Republican voters to watch and react. In the end, not many of these potential candidates will be standing, but each has a chance and each knows it.

Compare this to the Democrats' modus operandi.

In the FDP, leadership -- that includes congressional leadership -- does the choosing. Party leaders selected recycled Republican Charlie Crist to be their candidate for governor in 2014. We all know how that worked out for the first candidate in the race, Nan Rich of Weston -- denied a primary debate with Crist and treated like a leper for the best part of two years. And party leaders have done the same thing again in the Senate race, chosen U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy while making sure others peeled off in the name of "party unity." Don't look for Pam Keith of Palm Beach Gardens, determined candidate for Senate, to become the Democrats' out-of-nowhere Rick Scott. She doesn't have the millions he had to finance his own campaign.

It isn't as if the Dems lack talent. They have rising stars of their own, though I'm never sure if the party recognizes who they are. Some are in Tallahassee, some in the large cities across the state. But for a party that spends so much effort stressing "party unity," for the most part, they allow their best and brightest to lack confidence and languish in isolation. Unencouraged.

Candidates who should be candidates? Left behind the lines. Democratic voters, meanwhile, get little chance to share the choosing. That part is already done for them by the time they know what just happened. Zero excitement generated.

You look at the news this week on the GOP side and you see a bench dozens deep -- most of them hungry and confident. You listen to potential GOP candidates weigh in and you know they will be ready when opportunity knocks. Democrats should be watching, asking questions and learning.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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