Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Miami Herald: Without Jeb Bush, Senate race in Florida is wide open
Posted on Wed, Jan. 07, 2009
Without Jeb Bush, Senate race in Florida is wide open
BY BETH REINHARD
Former Gov. Jeb Bush is taking a pass on Florida's up-for-grabs U.S. Senate seat in 2010, dashing the hopes of Republicans thirsting for a heavyweight champion and setting the stage for fiercely competitive primaries in both parties.
Since Mel Martinez announced five weeks ago that he would step down in 2010, the possibility that Bush would run had stopped possible contenders in their tracks. Within minutes of Bush's e-mailed announcement, potential Republican and Democratic candidates were dialing donors.
''Florida is now firmly in play, which, in all honesty, it would not have been with Jeb Bush,'' said Democratic consultant Jeff Garcia, who helped run nominee Betty Castor's unsuccessful campaign against Martinez in 2004. ``It goes from being a foregone conclusion to a wide-open race.''
Potential Republican candidates include Attorney General Bill McCollum, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, former House Speaker Allan Bense and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack. McCollum is the only one on the Republican short list who has run statewide.
Another statewide officeholder, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, is considered the most formidable Democrat. Other possible contenders are state Sen. Dan Gelber and U.S. Reps. Kendrick Meek, Ron Klein and Allen Boyd.
The reaction to Bush's announcement came swiftly, rousing Democrats enthralled by an open Senate seat and deflating Republicans already laid low by losing the White House and backsliding in Congress.
''There's no hiding the disappointment for Republicans statewide and a lot of Republicans nationally,'' said Cory Tilley, a Republican consultant who worked for the former governor in the Capitol. ``It created a really big buzz after Republicans had been beaten pretty soundly. . . . Now the door has been cracked open for the Democrats.''
Martinez has said he will serve the rest of his term, but rumors persist that he may resign before 2010, allowing Republican Gov. Charlie Crist to appoint a successor who would have a leg up in the election.
''Jeb would have been a great candidate and senator,'' Martinez said in a statement.
``The good news is that Republicans still hold the advantage with a deep field of potential candidates.''
But a crowded field can bruise the eventual nominee and drain the fundraising pool before the general election.
''Jeb Bush not running is the best news a Democrat in Florida could hear,'' said Democratic fundraiser Kirk Wagar. ``Every other Republican is starting from scratch.''
The race could be equally challenging for Democrats. Sink is also eyeing the governor's mansion, and her absence from the Senate race would leave no clear frontrunner.
''Having Jeb in the race created a lot of pressure for Alex because she was seen as one of the only people who could potentially beat him,'' said Democratic consultant Freddy Balsera, who helped lead President-elect Barack Obama's Hispanic outreach. ``She loves the job that she's doing and prefers the executive role over being a legislator.''
That's the same reason some Republicans expected Bush to bow out, even though his brother, President George W. Bush, and his father, the former President George H.W. Bush, had made encouraging statements. Supporters say he is enjoying his return to private life and relishes being a chief executive, whether in government or in business.
In his press release, Bush said he would continue to push educational reform through his foundation, which promotes grading schools based on student test scores and giving private school vouchers to children in failing public schools.
Bush also urged the GOP to focus on ''core conservative principles'' and sent a friendly flare to the opposition.
''We must raise the level of debate to reflect the American people's desire for change and bipartisanship, embodied by November's historic election,'' Bush said. ``President-elect Obama ran a tremendous campaign, and I am proud to call him my president.''
Bush keeps his business affairs private, leaving his financial success up for speculation, considering the economic downtown.
He recently bought a home in Coral Gables, having rented a condominium nearby. He earns as much as $50,000 for speaking engagements, and he serves on the board of Tenet Healthcare, a part-time job with a lucrative compensation package.
He was hired more than a year ago as a financial consultant for Lehman Brothers, the Wall Street powerhouse that collapsed in September.
Miami Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Lesley Clark contributed to this report.
© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.