Has one of Florida's longest-running political lightning rods lost its charge?
Sunshine State voters are about to find out as the second hotly contested Senate race in two cycles opens a door for rhetorical combat over offshore oil drilling. Despite a fast-starting GOP challenger with a nuanced record on coastal drilling in Rep. Connie Mack, the ailing economy and a mercurial public stance on the issue could deter Sen. Bill Nelson (D) from heavily promoting his fight to keep rigs off the state's shores.
"Frankly, it's not the third rail of Florida politics like it used to be," Mark Ferrulo, executive director of the liberal group Progress Florida, said of the rigs now kept off state-controlled near-shore waters and at least 125 miles from the coast in federal waters.
Even as he quipped that "figuring out where Congressman Mack stands on drilling is harder than cleaning up an oil spill" and predicted that Nelson would tout his case against easing the limits on Floridian coastal oil production, Ferrulo acknowledged that the debate would not be top-of-mind for swing voters most concerned by unemployment and the state's housing crisis.
As recently as last year, the fate of state and federal bans on exploring for oil was among the most contentious topics on Florida's campaign trail. The three-way Senate clash that peaked as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill aimed a harsh spotlight on the risks of drilling -- moving GOP-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist to push a state constitutional amendment against near-shore rigs -- but ended with pro-drilling Sen. Marco Rubio (R) notching the victory.
Mack's official presence in the packed GOP primary race to take on Nelson is just one week old, giving the incumbent and his Republican foes plenty of time to take aim at his record on offshore drilling. The four-term House Republican, whose identically named father served two terms as a popular Florida senator, eased his previous opposition to offshore drilling in 2008 as ballooning gasoline prices turned "drill, baby, drill" into a GOP rallying cry during the presidential race.
Saying that "circumstances have changed, I have changed, and I believe the people of Florida have changed," Mack released a statement that year calling for the state to have "the right to decide whether to drill off our coast."
Since that year, Mack has hewed to his states' rights position on drilling while hitting the Obama administration for its entreaties that oil companies take advantage of public lands already available for oil leasing. The 44-year-old Senate hopeful was one of only nine Republicans to vote against a bill earlier this year that required the Interior Department to fast-track lease sales in the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans (E&ENews PM, May 12).
Two weeks after that vote, he told Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes that the administration's restrictions on areas to drill had led to the oil industry being blamed unfairly.
"If you offer them crap, you get crap," Mack said. "If you say to them you can drill in these areas that there's no oil to drill for and then blame them for not drilling, that is the problem."
Asked in a brief recent interview where he currently stands on Florida offshore drilling, Mack said that "the state of Florida's Legislature should be involved in the decision and we have to have revenue-sharing as a part of it."
Environmentalists such as Ferrulo warn that Mack risks flip-flopping charges on the issue, but he may ultimately benefit from taking the same shades-of-gray position as the electorate, University of South Florida political science professor Susan McManus said.
"If you look at public opinion and how people feel about oil drilling, it definitely varies among Floridians depending on the price of gas," MacManus explained in an interview. "They kind of flip-flop on it."
Indeed, a Quinnipiac University poll found in April that 60 percent of Floridians backed more offshore oil and gas drilling, a sharp turn from the 51 percent opposition registered in a similar poll conducted six weeks after BP PLC's Gulf rig began leaking oil in 2010.
Yet that question did not address the specific presence of rigs off Florida's coasts, which are a major driver of tourism and its attendant economic benefits. In keeping with the maxim that all politics is local, then, Mack's federalist approach to drilling could pay off against Nelson, who helped win passage of the 2006 deal that barred oil rigs within 235 miles of Tampa Bay until 2022.
"Some on the right might want to see [Mack] more forcefully say we should be actively pursuing near-shore drilling," University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett said, but "his current position is probably pretty safe right now for the Republican primary ... a fair number of Republicans are still ambivalent or conflicted about this issue themselves."
One of those ambivalent Republicans is Mike Haridopolos, the Florida state Senate president who backed a removal of the near-shore drilling moratorium before the BP gusher but later reversed course. In a potential boon to Mack's Senate candidacy, which he endorsed last month after dropping out of the race himself, Haridopolos has said he does not plan to take up the issue of drilling in state waters for the time being.
Underscoring the prospects that Mack's drilling play could win favor with even the most conservative Florida Republicans, Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a tea party favorite, echoed the Senate hopeful's prioritization of revenue-sharing in a recent interview. An unabashed drilling backer, West invoked the name of a Spanish oil company currently planning rigs off the coast of Cuba and added, "If we don't do it, somebody else is going to do it."
But West also defended Mack's work to secure federal funding for preserving the Everglades National Park, another environmental issue on which Florida Republicans lean less to the right. "Taking care of our natural resources" is a conservative principle, West averred.
Taking on Nelson
Of course, whether offshore drilling plays a central role in the Sunshine State Senate contest depends as much on Nelson as it does his eventual opponent -- and the incumbent would benefit from stoking environmentalist turnout by reminding the Democratic base of his work against drilling, said Washington, D.C.-based GOP operative Jim Dornan, one-time campaign manager to Nelson's 2006 challenger, then-Rep. Katherine Harris (R).
"I've always looked at drilling in Florida as something that's a sacred cow and can't be touched by either party," Dornan said in an interview. "That may have changed over time as a result of the tea party."
Mack seems to be getting a cross-section of Republican votes in a field that includes former interim Sen. George LeMieux (R). He leapt to an early lead in the primary in another Quinnipiac poll released last month that found him securing 32 percent of GOP voters, more than three times the level of support his opponents commanded. That same poll showed Mack and Nelson statistically tied in a hypothetical general election matchup. Nelson led all other Republicans by a comfortable margin.
Given the wilted economy in the state, Dornan said, "if [conservatives] can convince the public that [drilling is] economically and environmentally viable, it may change the way Floridians think. Nelson obviously will never change on it."