The once crowed Republican Senate primary in Florida has thinned out since Sen. Marco Rubio’s last-minute decision to run for reelection.
The former presidential candidate announced Wednesday that he will seek a second term after all, and his decision has now forced fellow Republicans to drop out of the race.
The man who Rubio said helped convince him to run again, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, will focus on his job as Gov. Rick Scott's No. 2 — at least until 2018, when Florida has open seats for governor and three cabinet positions, and also Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is up for reelection.
While Rubio is the immediate favorite to represent the GOP in November, he will have to hope the anti-establishment mood that helped him get elected in 2010 doesn't now hurt him. That's especially the case since presidential elections tend to bring out more Democrats and there's a risk that some Republican faithful may be turned off by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
"I have no illusions about how tough this race will be," Rubio said. "It's Florida in a presidential election year and a very unusual presidential election year, so it will be a tough race and I'm prepared for that."
Rubio cited the importance of keeping a Republican majority in the Senate as one reason he changed his mind.
Two millionaires who have never run for office are up against him.
In fact, businessman Todd Wilcox and developer Carlos Beruff said the decision that came two days ahead of the deadline to qualify for the ballot is a reason why Rubio shouldn't be elected.
"He's a guy who has become part of the thing he ran against six years ago. The Washington establishment has made him break promises that he made. If you don't stand by word and your handshake, what do you stand for?" said Beruff.
Beruff has already spent $4 million of his own money on television ads. The running theme is Washington politicians are useless and he's not one of them. When the race didn't include Rubio, the early advertising blitz helped Beruff in the polls. The idea of facing Rubio isn't going to change his plans to keep spending millions more before the Aug. 30 primary.
"We have enough to stay in the game for 72 days without changing where I go out to dinner," Beruff said. "It's only money; you can't take it with you. Once you have enough to take care of the people you love, the rest is excess."
Rubio was a little known former state House speaker when he used tea party support to topple then Republican Gov. Charlie Crist in the 2010 Senate race despite Crist beginning the race with far more money and the backing of the Washington GOP establishment. Crist eventually ran as an independent, and later changed parties, after falling behind to Rubio. Now Beruff is hoping to tap into a similar mood generated by Trump.
Ironically, Rubio says he won't share the campaign stage with Trump.
"We just have some significant policy disagreements," Rubio said. "I disagree with Donald more than I normally would with a Republican nominee."
Wilcox, who served in combat and as a CIA officer in Iraq, is also largely self-financing his campaign, but hasn't spent nearly as much as Beruff. Still, he has been in the race for 11 months and said he's not getting out.
"I am tired of going to the voting booth and holding my nose to vote for the least worst candidate on the ballot. We need to elect serious leaders that understand our enemies," he said in a statement released by his campaign.
If he wins the primary, Rubio will face either U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy or U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, neither of whom are switching their election plans.
"Until today, I had the highest name recognition of any of the candidates. Now I have the second highest name recognition of any of the candidates," Grayson said. "He's done nothing in his first term in Congress, he didn't even show up. That's going to hurt him in his own primary, if he wins the primary, and it's going to hurt him in November."
Murphy likened Rubio's decision to an employee who says he hates his job, leaves, and then wants it back when he doesn't get the job he was hoping for.
"Marco Rubio has always put his ambition above the people he's supposed to represent," he said. "How can Floridians trust someone who continually breaks his word?"
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.