Allen West Out In Florida Senate Race, How About Tea Party?

Allen-WestRep. Allen West made it official this week that he will not be entering the Florida GOP primary race for U.S. Senate.

“Over the last several weeks, numerous leaders of the Florida Republican Party, including current and past elected officials, have spoken to me about the race for the United States Senate. Out of respect, I was willing to listen,” said West in a statement.

“I have been given one of the highest honors to serve in the House of Representatives and I will continue to serve the citizens in that capacity. I will not seek the Republican nomination for the United States Senate in 2012. With regard to my future, the only goal I have is to do my very best to represent the constituents of the Congressional District and to restore the exceptionalism of our nation.”

So the race to challenge incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) remains wide open with recent polling showing that more than half of registered Republican voters are undecided. The embattled candidate Mike McCalister, currently engulfed in a major controversy over questions from the veterans organization Stolen Valor Task Force about his military record, came out on top in that poll.

The other key candidates in the race are Adam Hasner, George LeMieux and Craig Miller, who just entered the race this past month. For the established politicians Hasner and LeMieux, it cannot be an encouraging sign when a relative unknown such as McCalister finds himself leading in the polls. Yes, it’s still early, however, with the exception of Miller, the others have been at it for months now.

McCalister ran in the GOP primary for governor last year, giving him a slight advantage in that his name has been on a statewide ballot before. He finished with 10% of the vote, despite the fact that he raised no money and operated on a total of $8,000 which he loaned his campaign. It’s widely believed that a vote for McCalister was a de fact vote for ‘none of the above‘ in that race as voters became very disenfranchised over the negative tone between Bill McCollum and Rick Scott.

What may be working against Hasner and Lemieux and is difficult to measured is just how much of an anti-incumbent feeling there is among voters. With support for Congress now at historic lows and voters very disappointed over the recent debt ceiling debacle, political experience may actually be a detriment at the moment.

In fact, generic polling on the race indicates that voters see a non-politician with strong business experience as the best type of candidate to take on Bill Nelson. A factor that favors former CEO Craig Miller and most certainly contributed to his decision to enter the race. And possibly the reason he came within the margin of error of second place in the aforementioned poll after just 3 weeks in the race.

What should not be overlooked in Allen West’s statement is that he said he was approached by “numerous leaders of the Florida Republican Party, including current and past elected officials”.

Clearly a sign that the state party structure is less than enamored with the field, despite Hasner and Lemieux being products of that entity.

For those tea partiers who continue to sit this race out, West’s statement is also a tell that the Republican Party is alive and well in determining who the candidates will be, despite previous claims to the contrary about staying out of primaries and “allowing the people to decide”.

As for who the tea party supports in the U.S. Senate race, to borrow from Colonel West, the best term to accurately describe what’s happening may be schizophrenic. There’s a small but loyal faction that has become enamored by McCalister’s rousing stump speeches, accuracy aside, while others surprisingly are lining up with Hasner.

Working in Hasner’s favor here is the surprising endorsement from FreedomWorks, a tea party oriented group that espouses ‘limited government, lower taxes and more freedom’ – apparently FW looked past the Florida budget that grew from $50 Billion to $70 Billion during Hasner’s 8 years in Tallahassee, as well as his vote in 2009 for a $2 Billion tax and fee increase.

As the newcomer to the race, Craig Miller has also been working hard to introduce himself to the tea party movement around the state and has gained the support of a few notable leaders who see him as the most viable non-politician in the race and it’s a safe bet that he will continue to add to this support.

In reality, the tea party’s real strength is when it’s able to pull together and coalesce around single issues and individual candidates. An idea that seems to be lost on too many in the movement as we see them splinter in one election after another, adding credence to the idea that the tea party is it’s own worst enemy much of the time.

And George LeMieux may be the one to benefit most if the tea party continues to minimize it’s influence in the race. Despite his voting record in the U.S. Senate that was for the most part, with one or two exceptions, fairly conservative, he’s viewed by many as the moderate in the race. Yet, with the best name recognition of the group and a marginalized tea party vote, he’s got to like the odds.

With West’s decision to stay out and the hesitation from other notable names to enter based on the improbability of a politician defeating Bill Nelson, we very well may see the final field as it stands today. If you put any faith in polls, Craig Miller could be the man to watch – ultimately, he’ll have to show the ability to raise money.

As for Hasner, in spite of several key endorsements he has surprisingly low name recognition and continues to perform poorly in the polls – a trend he must change soon. Lemieux just has to hope that the tea party continues to shoot itself in the foot – history is on his side. And McCalister will have to find a way to rise above the self imposed mire of controversy he finds himself in and regain some momentum – an unlikely occurrence.

Cross-Posted at Florida Political Press