For years, Florida Republicans have believed that the senate seat occupied by Democrat Bill Nelson should—and could—be theirs. And it’s often seemed easy enough: First elected to the Florida House in 1972, the moderate legislator has managed to spend 30 years cultivating an image that is nothing above mediocre. A recent poll found that just over a third of voters approve of him and 12 percent of voters still don’t recognize his name. As Democratic pollster Tom Eldon put it, no one hates him, but no one really loves him either: “There isn’t a large passion factor.”
Nevertheless, Nelson has proved appealing enough to independents and has survived two senate races. This year, though, the veteran lawmaker may be facing the race of his life, against Florida political princeling Connie Mack IV. (Technically, Mack will still have to win Tuesday’s Republican primary, but everyone in the state assumes it’s a done deal.)
Mack shares his name with his father, a well-respected former U.S. senator from Florida, and his great-grandfather, a legendary baseballer, which already gives the candidate an impressive level of name recognition in the largest and arguably most diverse swing-state in the country. And with endorsements from Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush, and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi—not to mention millions of dollars from Sheldon Adelson and Karl Rove-backed super PAC American Crossroads—he also has the support of some of the GOP’s most esteemed kingmakers.
Dems aren’t yet sweating it—perhaps because of Mack’s less than senatorial past. As Nelson’s latest series of ads sums it up: Mack is a “former promoter for Hooters with a history of bar room brawling, altercations, and road rage,” with “one of the worst attendance records in Congress.” One Florida Democrat who served with Mack in the Florida House of Representatives joked that he’d vote for him for fraternity rush chair over U.S. senator: “He’s more of a social guy than a policy guy.”
It’s likely this close race will swing back and forth over the next few months, but what will remain consistent are the stakes: A Nelson loss would mark the first time since the Reconstruction Era that no Democrat holds a statewide office in Florida—a sign that the famously purple state may be leaning more red than blue these days.
AS DEMOCRATIC POLITICAL strategist Steve Schale put it, the story of Cornelius Harvey McGillicuddy IV could make a best-selling novel: He’s got a famous last name, all-American good looks, and a Hollywood romance. The son of Connie Mack III, the highly-regarded Florida senator that immediately preceded Nelson, and the great-grandson of Hall-of-Famer Connie Mack, who owned and managed the Philadelphia Athletics, Mack was born and raised in Southwest Florida. After graduating from the University of Florida in 1993, he went on to work as a business executive with Fort Myers-based LTP Management, a company that, among other things, owns and manages several Hooters franchises in the state. (This established a connection that’s lasted over the years: In March, Politico reported that Mack, his political action committee, and his congresswoman wife have received nearly $50,000 in donations from Hooters management during their time in office.)
As a young man in his twenties, Mack ran into trouble with the law. He had a run-in with the cops as a 21-year-old for resisting arrest outside a Jacksonville night club. The Miami Herald reports that he allegedly told the off-duty officer that arrested him, “You don’t know who I am.” A few years later, in 1992, he got in a bar brawl with former baseball player Ron Gant, leaving Mack with a broken ankle.
But Mack supporters, like Mike Haridopolous, the Republican president of the Florida Senate who was roommates with Mack in Tallahassee when they were both state representatives, said that’s all in the past, that the Florida congressman has proven himself to be a “serious” politician. In 2000, Mack won his first political campaign and a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, having raised unprecedented amounts of money for a first-time campaigner. “I thought he was running for governor, as much money as he’s raised,” joked then-state House speaker John Thrasher in a 2000 Associated Press article.
As a state representative, Mack earned a reputation for being “very, very conservative,” as described by former Florida House legislator Michael S. Bennett, who now serves in the state Senate. Mack was one of the four co-founders of The Freedom Caucus, which promoted a “pledge to oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.” Still, Mack didn’t exactly cultivate a strong legislative record. Dan Gelber, a former Democratic state senator, who also previously served in the House with Mack, said the Freedom Caucus debated over taxes, but in the end, it wasn’t too substantive. “It was really more of a softball team than it was a policy body,” he told me.
In 2005, Mack was elected to represent Florida’s 14th district in the U.S. House. As at the state level, Mack’s personal life has garnered more headlines than his legislative accomplishments. (In fact, in my interviews, few politicos in either party have been able to point to any major legislative achievement since he’s been elected). In 2006, he divorced his wife of ten years and married California Congresswoman Mary Bono—widow of Sonny Bono. Rumors in Capitol Hill swirled about their romance. In 2005, an Orlando Sentinel columnist wrote, “And now every political-insider rag in D.C. is salivating over the reported romance between Sonny's 43-year-old widow and the 38-year-old freshman from Fort Myers, whom Roll Call called ‘hunky.’" Financial issues stemming from his divorce also dominated headlines, with local media outlets questioning how such a financial hawk could have so much trouble taking care of his own money.
NOW, WITH SEVEN years in Congress behind him, Mack is focused on his run for Senate. While his platform relies on his “Penny Plan”—introduced in the House in May 2011, the plan advocates eliminating one penny out of every federal dollar spent in order to balance the budget by 2019—it’s more likely that his campaign, like those previous, will rely on his famous family.
And so far, this strategy seems to be working. Former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner exited the Senate race right after Mack entered and is now running for a congressional seat instead. Former Florida Senator George LeMieux—who was appointed an interim senator in 2009—dropped out of the GOP Senate primary because, he says, “the Mack name enjoys widespread recognition that can only be matched with substantial advertising or the opportunity to debate on statewide television.” But Mack’s camp refused to participate in any debates, giving little room for his opponents to gain any name recognition. (The Mack campaign did not respond to numerous calls for comment.)
Another factor in Mack’s favor: the funds flowing into the race on his behalf. Though Nelson has raised $13.9 million to Mack’s $3.3 million, that doesn’t include the $1 million that Adelson has donated to Mack’s PAC (called Freedom PAC), or the $6.2 million that American Crossroads has committed to run attack ads against Nelson. And if the race continues to be close, more money can certainly be expected to be thrown Mack’s way.
Nevertheless, observers on both sides of the aisle still think Nelson has the upper-hand. Democrats are, of course, worried about Republican super PAC money, but as Chad Clanton, a Nelson campaign senior advisor, told me, “We are confident we are going to be financially competitive throughout the race.” The polls coming out of Florida have been inconsistent, but the latest PPP poll shows Nelson leading Mack 45-43 percent—a slight lead that falls within the poll’s margin of error. Democrats remain optimistic, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Nelson’s camp exudes an air of confidence. Even Republican strategist Alex Patton says, “I think this is Nelson’s race to lose,” though he emphasized that “Mack is within striking distance.”
And beyond the Nelson-Mack showdown, Democrats see hope in other, lower-level races. After getting trampled in 2010, the party has been focused on recruitment, Christian Ulvert, a consultant to the Florida Democratic Party for state house races, said.
But if Mack takes the Senate seat, Florida Republicans will have succeeded in removing the last Democrat from statewide office. A Nelson loss could have an “avalanche effect” in Florida politics, Florida State University professor Lance deHaven-Smith warned.
“It would be a bellwether change,” deHaven-Smith told me. “It would solidify the Republican’s control of Florida.”
Perry Stein is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.