Florida Senate Candidate Charts Careful Course Challenging GOP Leadership

For new Republican Senate and House candidates, one of the trickiest challenges is navigating the conservative base’s frustration with GOP leadership. With John Boehner announcing on Friday that he will be stepping down as Speaker of the House, the attention — and pressure — from the right on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will only increase.

Still, the impulse for Republican Senate hopefuls to go-along-to-get-along is understandable. Considering the significant financial and infrastructure support the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) and other official party organizations can offer a fledging campaign, it makes sense to be cautious about burning a bridge with them.     

On the flip side, some candidates, usually those challenging Republican incumbents in primaries, have chosen to be bomb throwers, demanding resignations from GOP leadership and attacking them as RINOs, sellouts, “no different from Harry Reid,” and so on.

Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R), a candidate for Sen. Marco Rubio’s Senate seat, seems to have found a third way forward. A vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, Lopez-Cantera is not advocating for a government shutdown, but instead encourages Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to change the Senate rules so that the Democrats cannot hold the Republicans’ slim 54-member majority hostage with a filibuster threat. (Current rules require 60 votes to end a filibuster, but McConnell can change that to a simple majority.)

Lopez-Cantera laid out his strategy in a series of posts on his Twitter and Facebook accounts, and a petition against the Iran Deal on his website. “The traditions of the Senate and the filibuster rule meant more to the leadership than America’s security and Israel’s survival,” he wrote, accusing Republicans of “[giving] Iran everything it wanted and abandon[ing] Israel.”

“This was the very opposite of leadership. This a concession to nuclear terrorism that will end in untold deaths,” he continued. “Instead of just shutting down [the federal government], let’s shut down [the] 60-vote threshold in the Senate. [McConnell] can do it and he should do it.”

“I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it; failure to stop this deal with Iran is a failure of leadership,” the website petition begins, “and will have dire international consequences in the future.”

Saying McConnell’s actions, prioritizing Senate rules over “America’s security and Israel’s survival,” were a “failure of leadership” is hardly mincing words, but certainly does not rise to the level of accusations made by the firebrand Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

Lopez-Cantera is not demanding McConnell step aside, or pursue a government shutdown that many believe would backfire on Republicans; he is asking McConnell to enact a rule change that is completely within his powers.

In a telephone interview, Lopez-Cantera said that he decided to speak out because of the frustration he shared with Republican activists about the Senate leadership.

“I’m as frustrated as anyone else who is tired of the inaction,” said Lopez-Cantera. “We were expecting that things would happen [after we elected a Republican majority], that we would get responsible government, that we would get conservative policies through Congress. But that’s not happening.”

McConnell seemed to be not even considering changing the 60-vote rule to force Obama to veto conservative bills, continued Lopez-Cantera. “It’s time to show what a Republican majority can look like. If we let Harry Reid stop everything, then what’s the point of having the majority?”

Lopez-Cantera acknowledged he was taking a risk by challenging GOP leadership, as a candidate in a tight primary. The most recent polls show the race is completely “up in the air,” as Public Policy Polling’s latest press release described the race: Rep. David Jolly at 18 percent, Rep. Ron DeSantis at 15 percent, Lopez-Cantera at 14 percent, and 52 percent undecided.

One interesting aspect to Lopez-Cantera’s challenge to leadership is that he is a part of the party leadership himself. As the current Lieutenant Governor and former Majority Leader of the Florida House, he might be expected to avoid ruffling any GOP establishment feathers.

That is absolutely not the case, he explained. “I’m saying it because it has to be said. I understand why people are frustrated — I feel the same way. I am not happy. I am discontent. I feel disenfranchised,” he said, emphasizing his words.

Lopez-Cantera’s frustration with Senate leadership was not limited to the Iran Deal. “I’m just as frustrated they’re not doing anything about the deficit. I’m just as frustrated they’re not doing anything about the debt. What are they doing?”

“It’s time to show what a Republican majority can look like,” says Lopez-Cantera

There is a limited window for action on these issues, he added, because the politicians from both parties would soon get “bogged down” in the 2016 campaigns. “This is the last few months to do anything…what are they going to do before the end of 2015?”

“At least here in Florida we passed a budget, we cut taxes, we added almost a million jobs. We’re doing what they’re just talking about, and lately, they’re not even talking about it,” he continued.

“I’m interested in being a Senator that does things,” he said. A simple statement to be sure, but one that has been finding traction on the campaign trail. Lopez-Cantera shared how he had met many Floridians who see their elected representatives in Washington giving a lot of speeches, voting on meaningless resolutions, passing bills from one chamber that immediately lost all momentum, “the endless line of empty gestures that don’t do anything.”

Part of Lopez-Cantera’s commitment to “do” things includes his pledge to hold one town hall meeting a month as Senator. “I made that promise when I ran for Dade County property appraiser, and I kept it,” he said, noting that there were thirteen states that were smaller than Dade County. The town halls were a “very positive” experience for him, and he described several “great ideas” that his constituents suggested that were put into practice.

A source close to Lopez-Cantera called his challenge to leadership a “respectful rebellion,” explaining that he was “not concerned about moderating for the NRSC,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Carlos doesn’t have any animosity towards McConnell, but for him this is a matter of principle. It’s principle first, and how he behaves on the campaign trail is how he’d behave in the Senate.”

Whether Lopez-Cantera has crossed an unforgivable line with the party leadership, and more importantly, whether conservative voters will rally behind him in a wide-open primary race, remains to be seen, but he is not yielding. “This is a realistic approach,” he said. This Iran Deal “will lead to conflict,” he was certain, and must be stopped.

 Sarah Rumpf is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.