With Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) apparently planning to run for President, Republicans desperately want a successor who has established statewide name recognition, a reputation beyond criticism, and a proven track record raising money.
Enter Jeff Atwater.
The name may not be familiar to those outside of Florida, but the former banker has served as the state’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) since 2011, winning two statewide elections by wide margins. Atwater had also been elected state representative and then state senator, serving as Senate President before he ran for CFO. He is well known among the state’s Republican activists, a frequent face at RPOF and county Republican events, where he is known for sponsoring ice cream socials.
The ice cream socials fit perfectly with his squeaky-clean reputation. The perpetually cheerful Atwater has a solidly conservative voting record from his time in the Legislature, but one would be hard-pressed to find anyone on either side of the aisle with a negative word to say about him. Some, especially Democrats, may disagree with him on policy, but they don’t dislike him personally.
Even better — at least from the perspective of the Republican powers-that-be tasked with supporting the complicated, expensive endeavor that is a Florida statewide campaign — is that Atwater is not just winning his elections by comfortable margins, he is an extremely strong fundraiser with a deep network in all corners of the state. In 2010, his first statewide run, he raised $5.1 million, defeating former Democratic State Representative Loranne Ausley 57.3 percent to 38.9 percent. In 2014, he raised over $4.4 million, again easily dispatching a Democratic challenger, William Rankin, 58.9 percent to 41.1 percent.
Recently re-elected to a second four-year term in 2014, Atwater had originally planned to either run in 2018 for Senate, either against Nelson or challenging a new Democratic nominee for an open seat if Nelson retired, or for Governor, which will be an open seat after Governor Rick Scott is term limited out.
Atwater had already started sketching plans for a 2018 campaign, talking to key supporters and letting them know what he was considering. But now, with Rubio looking increasingly likely to run for President, Atwater has moved up his timetable: talking to consultants, starting to put together plans and consider staffing needs for a 2016 Senate campaign.
Atwater also recently took a trip to Washington, D.C., during CPAC, where he had meetings with the NRSC, the U.S. Chamber, potential donors, and conservative media. The NRSC, remember, is wary of having to support an untested candidate in Florida.
As National Review’s Jim Geraghty noted earlier this month, “The NRSC philosophy is simple: Incumbents enjoy advantages, and while winning an open Senate seat in Florida during a presidential year is possible, it’s not easy, and it’s certainly not cheap.”
Breitbart News spoke to Atwater and Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who has advised Atwater. Both confirmed that the D.C. meetings had taken place and that Atwater had received a positive reception, but declined to give details on the record from the trip.
Atwater has also been increasing his public appearances around Florida. After taking a break for the holidays, Atwater has been keeping a full calendar of Republican club meetings and “Lincoln Day” dinners (the annual fundraising events sponsored by the county Republican parties) across the state.
Just this Friday, Atwater spoke at the Lincoln Day dinner for the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee, located on the critical “I-4 corridor,” a swing area that often determines the fate of Florida elections, being both geographically and politically between the conservative Panhandle and the more liberal South Florida. Reports are that Atwater has been getting a very warm reception, and people are starting to openly encourage him to run if Rubio does jump to the Presidential race.
“Marco Rubio and I served in the Florida House together as freshmen, and I’d be the first to cheer him on if he decided to stay in the U.S. Senate,” Atwater told Breitbart News. “If he does run for President, I believe it’s vital Florida sends a strong, Constitutional conservative with a strong statewide record to take his place.”
Wilson, who described Atwater as a “proven statewide campaigner and fundraiser” and “one of Florida’s happy conservative warriors,” told Breitbart News that Atwater has a lot of strengths that make him appealing to Florida Republicans searching for a strong candidate. “Jeff Atwater is as comfortable campaigning in Miami or Palm Beach as he is in [the I-4 corridor] or the Panhandle,” said Wilson. “It’s why so many Florida Republicans are encouraging him to run; the Democrats and media have thrown everything they can at him, and he’s always come out on top.”
The important thing to keep in mind is that Atwater would not be making these moves unless Rubio was likely to leave the Senate. Atwater and Rubio have been friends since the two were freshmen state representatives together, and stayed close as their political careers advanced in an intriguing parallel, Rubio becoming Speaker of the House, Atwater Senate President, and both men winning their first statewide election in 2010. Atwater would never consider running against Rubio and there would be no other reason to leave his position as CFO two years early; there will be no other statewide race on the ballot.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that Rubio has reserved the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami for April 13, for what will presumably be a presidential announcement. The building has a rich history for the area’s Cuban residents, and Rubio has given speeches there before. However, several sources close to Rubio have told Breitbart News that the April 13 Freedom Tower plan is not yet locked in.
Marc Caputo, Politico’s Florida reporter, who has covered Rubio for years during his tenure with the Miami Herald, noted in his report that the Freedom Tower is just across the street from the American Airlines Arena, where the Miami Heat will host the Orlando Magic in the American Airlines Arena the evening of April 13. Traffic and security would be a nightmare.
“Nothing — dates or locations — is set in stone,” one source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Breitbart News. “But [Rubio] is clearly nearing a decision and an announcement appears imminent.” The source did say that the date is likely to be set at some point Monday.
While the final date and location may not yet be decided, a mid April date would seem to be fortuitous timing for Rubio, when there is expected to be an opening in the political news cycle. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is planning to make his announcement on April 7, and can be expected to dominate the media’s attention for several days, as Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) did after his announcement on March 23 made him the first to jump into the race. Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) is rumored to be considering making his move in May and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, raising piles of money through an exploratory committee, seems in little rush to officially become a candidate.
Rubio is wrapping up March with the key pieces in place to launch a presidential campaign. Alex Conant, the chief spokesman in Rubio’s Senate office, recently moved to his PAC, Reclaim America, as National Review reported. This is obviously not an irreversible move, but such a critically important staffer would not be transferred if the PAC was just going to continue promoting Rubio’s latest book or supporting the other conservative candidates the Senator has endorsed across the country.
Rubio has also been visiting key early primary states with his book tour, getting a positive reception in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina from conservatives who seem willing to forgive his previous heresy with the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill. In fact, Rubio may have an advantage with conservative Republicans over Bush, who has adamantly defended his moderate positions on immigration and education. In contrast, Rubio backed off his defense of the immigration bill, and the actual legislation floundered without the House ever even debating it, thereby lessening conservative ire.
Many predicted that Bush would make it tough for Rubio to get traction for a presidential campaign, by capturing the lion’s share of Florida’s top Republican donors and strategic allies. However, as Breitbart News reported, recent polling shows Bush’s support in Florida slipping five points since last June, while Rubio rose a point. Bush is still in the lead, but this far in advance of the presidential primaries, there is more than enough time for Rubio to continue to steadily climb in the polls as he did to defeat Crist in 2010.
As for Atwater, a source close to him told Breitbart News that once Rubio sets a date for his announcement, Atwater will make his own announcement “within days” after Rubio.
A Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll conducted from March 19 to 22 showed that Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi were the only two Republican candidates tested who polled better than the two Democratic Congressmen, Alan Grayson and Patrick Murphy, rumored to be considered running for Senate. Former Congressman Allen West was actually the top choice of Republican primary voters, selected by 38 percent of poll respondents, but since leaving Congress, West has moved to Texas and has publicly said he has no intention of moving back to Florida to run.
Breitbart News will continue to follow this story and expects more details to be finalized about both Rubio and Atwater’s plans within the coming days.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.