TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The biggest Republican name considering a run for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's seat if he enters the presidential race announced Saturday that he will not seek the position.
Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater's decision not to run leaves Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy the only declared candidate for Rubio's seat and opens the question of who will step up on the Republican side to seek it. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis is considering a run, as is Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, but with Atwater out of the race, others might consider it.
That includes former Republican Sen. George LeMieux, who briefly held the seat before Rubio won it in 2010.
"I haven't been thinking about it, but America still needs saving so we'll see how it fleshes out," said LeMieux, who dropped out of the 2012 Republican Senate primary. He said as soon as Atwater announced his decision, his cellphone began ringing with people encouraging a run.
The race also could be an opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat as the party has a history of doing better in Florida during presidential years. President Barack Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012, but Republicans won the governor's race and most other statewide races in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014. Democrats hold a 39 percent to 35 percent advantage in voter registration over Republicans.
"Florida is a different state in a presidential and a non-presidential year," said Democratic pollster David Beattie. "Regardless of who's on top of the ticket, turnout goes up. Being on the ballot on a presidential year is better for the Democrat."
Rubio is expected to announce a presidential run Monday at the Freedom Tower in Miami. Most potential candidates have been waiting for Rubio to make his decision official before announcing their plans. But a political committee was set up last week to help an Atwater campaign and he had been calling supporters to prepare for a run. He made his announcement on Facebook, saying he wanted to continue serving in his current job.
Florida, with about 12 million voters, is a difficult state to mount a campaign if a candidate isn't already known. It cost $1.5 million to run television ads statewide for a week. The prospect of challenging a candidate like Atwater, who has been the most successful Florida Republican at the polls in 2010 and 2014, might have kept some from getting in the race.
"If you've not held statewide office before or run statewide before, it's a very difficult state," said LeMieux, who said Atwater's decision will attract more candidates. "It wouldn't surprise me if there were a half dozen legitimate candidates in the race."
Murphy, 32, whose district includes parts of Palm Beach County, didn't wait until Rubio's announcement to get in the race.
"The issues that I support and my stances cut across the political spectrum," said Murphy, adding that he's strong on fiscal issues and supports keeping abortion legal and increasing the minimum wage. "In our last election we were humbled to have a strong victory in a district that Mitt Romney ended up winning by a few percentage points."
Democrat Sen. Bob Graham held the seat from 1987 until he retired in 2005. It was then won by Republican Mel Martinez, who left office before finishing the term. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed LeMieux to finish the term. Crist then ran for the seat himself, first as a Republican and then as an independent. He lost to Rubio, who says he won't seek re-election if he gets in the presidential race even though he could — the deadline for entering the Senate race is May 6, 2016, after the presidential nomination will likely be decided.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando is another possible candidate, but many see him as too liberal and too inflammatory to win statewide. He recently had a messy divorce trial where he accused his wife of bigamy before they agreed to an annulment. Some Democrats are advising him not to run.
DeSantis, who represents a district that includes Daytona Beach and St. Augustine, would be able to transfer about $1 million from a House campaign account to a Senate campaign.
While Lopez-Cantera also won statewide office, he did so as Scott's running mate and he isn't as well known to Floridians. It wouldn't help, either, that Scott's unfavorable ratings have been high since the day he took office in 2011. Scott is the only Florida governor to win office twice without receiving a majority of the votes cast.