Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera publicly confirmed Saturday that he is "strongly considering" a U.S. Senate bid in 2016, drawing closer to throwing his hat in a GOP primary ring that already has one congressman and could soon include a handful of other candidates.
Lopez-Cantera's speech announcing that he is mulling entering the campaign drew a standing ovation from the audience at a meeting of the Republican Party of Florida's executive board during the party's quarterly meeting at the Rosen Centre Hotel in Orlando.
A former state House majority leader and Miami-Dade County property appraiser, Lopez-Cantera used the remarks to stress his ties to the state Republican Party and boast about the economic growth the state has enjoyed under Gov. Rick Scott. Scott appointed Lopez-Cantera as lieutenant governor in 2014 following the resignation of Jennifer Carroll.
"This playbook here in Florida, it works," Lopez-Cantera said Saturday. "So I've been thinking lately: It might be time to take that playbook to Washington, D.C. We need a little bit more Florida in D.C., maybe not so much D.C. in D.C."
Speaking to reporters after his remarks, Lopez-Cantera said the focus on his experience in the state wasn't necessarily an attempt to draw a distinction between himself and potential rivals in the race, most of whom serve in Congress. And he brushed aside questions about his vote as a legislator in 2009 for tax increases that helped close a massive budget shortfall.
"I'm proud to put my record of cutting taxes up against anybody who could potentially be considering this (race)," Lopez-Cantera said. "I would argue that I've cut taxes and reduced the tax burden on Floridians and have actual examples of it more than anybody else that I've heard of that's being considered."
Lopez-Cantera is a close friend of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican who is leaving the Senate seat to run for the GOP presidential nomination.
Lopez-Cantera did not give a time frame for his final decision.
A Quinnipiac University poll in April found Lopez-Cantera trailing Democratic Senate candidate Patrick Murphy, a two-term congressman, by 4 points in a hypothetical match-up, though 29 percent of voters were undecided. The lieutenant governor would edge Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, another potential candidate, by a single point, with 30 percent undecided.
The only other potential Republican candidate tested in that poll was state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who has since taken his name out of the running.
But Lopez-Cantera is far from alone in considering the race. Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis is already in, and Congressmen David Jolly and Jeff Miller are also weighing runs for the open seat. Former state Attorney General Bill McCollum is looking at a bid as well.
Several potential candidates used the opportunity of this weekend's party meeting to court GOP grassroots activists. Miller hosted a reception Friday night; Jolly had one of his own Saturday afternoon. Speaking to reporters after a breakfast Saturday morning, McCollum said it was the first time in a while that he had attended the gathering.
"I'm just here to catch up with old friends and find out what's going on in the party," said McCollum, a former congressman.
McCollum has twice lost bids for the U.S. Senate --- first in the general election in 2000, and then in the GOP primary in 2004. After winning the attorney general's race in 2006, McCollum lost the 2010 Republican primary for governor to Scott.
But McCollum said he might be able to win a Senate election without raising as much money as lesser-known rivals, many of whom would have to introduce themselves to voters.
"It's going to be hard for anybody to fundraise in this environment beyond a certain level because of the presidential race and so forth," he said. "One of the reasons people are looking at me and saying, 'you ought to run,' I think, is because I do have an already-strong name ID in this state and very high positives."
McCollum said he would make a decision in late summer or the fall.
The ability to raise money could help winnow the field. Miller, who represents the western end of the Panhandle, estimated it could take $12 million to $15 million to run in the primary.
"I've never had to raise that kind of money in the 1st Congressional District," he said.
But Miller dismissed the idea that his relatively low name recognition could hurt him if he decides to get in the race.
"Marco started off with single-digit name recognition when he ran the first time. ... Name ID and recognition will all come with time, and we have that now," he said.
Jolly used his remarks at the breakfast to take a shot at the Democratic Party's attempt to rally behind Murphy, who has already been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee despite Grayson's public flirtation with the race.
"We are facing primaries, in the race for the presidency and presumably in the race for the United States Senate," Jolly said. "And primaries are a great thing. We are one party. We get to choose our candidates. ... The Democratic Party uses a machine out of Washington, D.C., to decide who the local candidate's going to be, and they run that candidate and they push everybody else out of the way."
But Jolly was perhaps the cagiest of all the potential candidates when it came to talk of a Senate run.
"I haven't ruled it out," he said. "Let's see where the field is in the summer."
DeSantis was unable to attend the party meeting because of a family emergency, his campaign said. DeSantis is expected to run as a tea party-style Republican and has already won the support of several national conservative groups.
Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia conceded that Murphy could benefit if he's able to avoid a primary. But Ingoglia said competition could help the GOP field.
"Any primary is a good thing when there's a thoughtful discussion about the policies and the decisions that have to be made for the people," Ingoglia said. "As long as they don't get personal, and it's about policy."