Name recognition could determine GOP primary

Name recognition could determine GOP primary
© Getty Images/The Hill

Florida’s Senate primary election will likely host the biggest GOP establishment versus Tea Party clash of 2016.

Rep. Ron DeSantis is the Tea Party’s horse in the crowded field, and Rep. David Jolly is jockeying with Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera for establishment support.

The Club for Growth, Tea Party Express, Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks all quickly endorsed DeSantis after he launched his bid this spring.

Since then, he has won support from a handful of Tea Party-backed lawmakers, including Sen. Mike LeeMike LeeCruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power Overnight Finance: GOP offers measure to repeal arbitration rule | Feds fine Exxon M for Russian sanctions violations | Senate panel sticks with 2017 funding levels for budget | Trump tax nominee advances | Trump unveils first reg agenda The Memo: Trump tries to bend Congress to his will MORE (R-Utah) and Rep. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnNet neutrality activists to target lawmakers Over-the-counter hearing aids: A long overdue alternative for millions of Americans Overnight Tech: Web shows support for net neutrality on 'Day of action' | Dems call for more FCC oversight | Verizon suffers massive data breach MORE (R-Tenn.), who endorsed DeSantis on Monday and serves as chairwoman of the House special committee investigating Planned Parenthood. In November, House Benghazi Committee Chairman Trey GowdyTrey GowdyGOP lawmaker wants former Obama aide to testify Overnight Cybersecurity: FBI pick says Russia probe not a 'witch hunt' | Massive Verizon data leak | Agencies restricted from using Russian security software GOP Rep. Gowdy slams Trump team for 'amnesia' on Russia meetings MORE (R-S.C.) toured with DeSantis.

Tea Party leaders have told The Hill that their groups are inclined to focus their efforts on open-seat races, including Florida’s, where they think they can win.

FreedomWorks President Adam Brandon in a November interview called DeSantis a “proxy” in this cycle for the movement’s anti-establishment push.

“He is a rock-solid guy who can win in Florida — that is awesome. You see a lot of energy going to races like that.”

Taylor Budowich, the executive director of the Tea Party Express, likewise sees a future with DeSantis.

“I don’t have the confidence in the other candidates that I do in Ron DeSantis,”  Budowich told The Hill on Monday.

“David Jolly could be a great senator, Carlos López-Cantera could be a great senator, but I know for a fact that Ron DeSantis will be a great senator,” he added.

The race between DeSantis, Jolly, López-Cantera and businessman Todd Wilcox has no clear front-runner, with recent polls showing low name recognition for all the candidates.

For now, most Florida Republicans see Jolly and López-Cantera jockeying for establishment supremacy. Just as DeSantis is relying in part on Tea Party support, both Jolly and López-Cantera hope to draw from their own constituents.

Jolly, who succeeded longtime Rep. C.W. Bill Young, is from the Tampa Bay area, home to an expansive TV market.

That means the ads from his 2014 House bid reached about one-quarter of the state’s registered Republicans, according to analysis of three political scientists provided to the political website Sayfie Review. 

Jacksonville, DeSantis’s turf, is home to just 11 percent of registered Republicans.

That Tampa exposure is a “built-in edge” for Jolly, according to Florida GOP strategist Alex Patton, because it has helped improve his name recognition in an important area. He added that DeSantis’s home base is “not placed well for a Republican primary.”

López-Cantera, whose base of support is in Miami, can benefit from the exposure he gets as lieutenant governor, as well as his ties to major Florida donor networks.  

That’s already borne out, in part. A super-PAC supporting him received a $100,000 check from GOP mega-donor Norman Braman, a longtime ally of the man who will vacate the Senate seat, presidential candidate Marco RubioMarco RubioBush ethics lawyer: Congress must tell Trump not to fire Mueller The private alternative to the National Flood Insurance Program  Cruz offers bill to weaken labor board's power MORE

Both representatives from the DeSantis and Jolly campaigns balked at the notion that they’ll only draw from their core constituents — DeSantis from the far right and Jolly with moderate Republicans.

Sarah Bascom, a Jolly spokeswoman, told The Hill in an email Tuesday that Jolly is “not concerned with support of DC special interest groups pretending to carry the Tea Party banner” and is the “only conservative in this race putting Florida first, unafraid to take the hard votes.”

“It’s reflected in his large base of support across Florida from voters who identify themselves as Tea Party conservatives and continue to demand the type of change David brings to Washington,” she added.

Barney Keller, a strategist with DeSantis’s campaign, described him as having “all three legs of the Reagan stool” by uniting Tea Party, security-focused Republicans, and social conservatives.

Lopez-Cantera campaign manager Brian Swensen told The Hill in a statement that Miami-Dade County, the candidate's base, has more GOP voters than any other county in the state. He added that the lieutenant governor is the only candidate who has run statewide and is fluent in Spanish. 

"He is not a Washington D.C. Republican, but a Florida Republican who has a record of conservative accomplishments that have translated to helping the middle class family trying to get by, not show votes on the House floor," Swensen added.

But because the race is wide open, cash may be king.

Unlike in most Senate races where the Tea Party has played, its pick has the early advantage. DeSantis has reported $2.5 million cash on hand through September. Wilcox is in second, with $683,000, thanks to a $500,000 personal loan. Jolly has $658,000 in the bank, and López-Cantera has $380,000 stored away.

“It’s a massive state with big media markets, and resources buy name ID,” Patton, the Republican strategist, said.

“What’s going to be interesting with Congressman DeSantis is how much money are these Tea Party groups going to put into this race.”

So far, FreedomWorks has already helped direct about $50,000 of “fundraising proceeds” to his campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.

When asked whether Republicans could be turned off by DeSantis’s ties to Tea Party groups that helped spark contentious intra-party battles, Senate Conservatives Fund president Ken Cuccinelli brushed it aside.

“Having support from conservatives is not a liability. It is a major asset that all of the candidates want in order to win this nomination,” he said by email.

“The voters are very upset with the failed leadership in Washington, and they want to elect someone who will shake the place up. Our goal is to help Ron DeSantis get his message out so the voters know they have a candidate who shares their values.”

But some Republicans question whether that will be a liability during the primary or even with moderate voters in a general election.

“As much as [Tea Party support] can get you through the primary, it could be very much a liability in a general election,” state GOP strategist Chris Ingram said.

“Either side that gets too far to the left or too far to the right will find themselves on the losing end of the election,” he added, pointing to the race between Democratic establishment favorite Rep. Patrick Murphy and fiery progressive Rep. Alan GraysonAlan GraysonThe Hill's 12:30 Report Why Republicans took aim at an ethics watchdog Could bipartisanship rise with Trump government? MORE.

But while the state’s presidential primary is just three months away, voters won’t head to the polls to select Senate nominees until August. So right now, the field is overshadowed by the volatile race for president that includes two Floridians and a real estate magnate turned GOP front-runner.

“You can’t get any oxygen to speak,” Patton said.

“These guys are just in fundraising mode, quiet building-grass-roots mode. … They will explode in the coming months.”