ROONEY RETIREMENT OPENS FLOODGATES FOR FUTURE
Political animals are scrambling at the sudden retirement of Congressman Francis Rooney. With a new empty seat comes a new surge of political jockeying, and, to quote the musical Hamilton, everyone is asking “What comes next?”
Both County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass and State Representative Dane Eagle are “exploring their options,” according to sources close to the candidates, and several other well-known names are being thrown around. Republicans will certainly be concerned about a heavy primary, meaning coalition building is going to be the name of the game.
So, let’s take a look at the candidates who may have a shot at being Southwest Florida’s Next Top Congressman:
State Representative Dane Eagle
He’s young. He’s retiring (term limits.)
But Representative Eagle has one fatal flaw, and that fatal flaw comes from his backers. Special interest groups in Tallahassee and Washington are already lining up for Eagle.
Eagle is closely connected to political powerhouse Terry Miller, who has a tendency of picking winners for local office, but has failed to obtain higher offices, having lost a Congressional race (to Curt Clawson) and, more recently, the State Agriculture Commissioner race by the slimmest of margins. Eagle could be Miller’s swan song, someone whose political career doesn’t just end in Congress.
There are also questions as to whether Representative Eagle wants to enter into a race this early. An open seat is bound to get dirty, and the newlywed has indicated his desire to start a family. Is he ready to sacrifice that? Only time will tell.
County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass
Commissioner Pendergrass is also a confirmed “maybe,” and with the front runner having strong state and national connections, only someone with local bona fides can compete.
All campaigns depend on name recognition. This is how President Trump was successful without special interest ties. And in the age of social media, the right name can go farther than a thousand grassroots door knockers, all with a single click. Most voters get their news from Facebook, making that a much more powerful news source than mainstream or even local news media.
But with a larger senior population, targeting the youth vote won’t be enough. You have to know the people directly. Commissioner Pendergrass has been elected countywide, whereas Representative Eagle has only been elected in Cape Coral. Both were also elected around the same time, allowing for a real-time comparison of their records and character while in office.
Democrats are most afraid of a Pendergrass run, referring to him as “Pendergast” for his conservative record on the County Commission. This may be an ironic win for Eagle, as he may be able attract more moderate Democrats at a time when the local party is more emboldened than ever.
County Commissioner Brian Hamman
If it isn’t Eagle or Pendergrass, Terry Miller may have a third option. Commissioner Brian Hamman has the youth and name recognition that Pendergrass has without the connections to Tallahassee or Washington.
Commissioner Hamman certainly agrees that a Commissioner would be a better choice for Congress. Commissioners Hamman and Pendergrass have together kept Lee County’s taxes low and grew the economy, and Lee County leaders are the political first responders in natural disasters, giving them, ironically, some national security experience.
It’s hard to see a scenario where Commissioners Hamman and Pendergrass run against each other, and if Eagle doesn’t run, Hamman may be Terry Miller’s next phone call.
State Representative Bob Rommel
While most of the Congressional District is focused in Lee County, Collier County needs a champion, too! Bonita and Collier County have the financial connections to at least give Eagle a challenge, possibly even win in a three-way race.
Representative Rommel has the conservative bona fides and business experience to coalesce pro-Trump conservatives. The State Legislature has historically been a “jumping off” point for political candidates, and a race between Eagle and Rommel will make it a campaign of voting records. And that may be enough in Trump’s Republican Party.
Mayor Peter Eric Simmons
While Representatives and Commissioners legislate, Mayors have to lead. Mayor Peter Eric Simmons could be a bridge between Lee and Collier voters. After former Congressman Trey Radel, let’s say “retired,” his successor was an unknown from Bonita Springs.
Mayor Simmons could obtain the coveted Collier financing and could make a compelling economic argument to Lee County. He could easily be seen as a dark horse candidate.
State Representative Byron Donalds
Could this be a “comeback kid” moment for Donalds? The young, black conservative made his debut in 2012, chosen by the Tea Party group GOOOH to run in a seven-way race to succeed Congressman Connie Mack. Donalds placed fifth, but he won a State House seat as a consolation prize.
Eight-years later, that same seat is up for grabs, and Donalds has the financial connections and voting record to prove he’s a conservative. Combine that with being Collier’s favorite son, and the #Blexit movement…let’s just say this former opposition researcher smells a sequel.
Former City Councilman Chauncey Goss
Third time’s the charm? Maybe not for Chauncey Goss, the Sanibel native and son of former CIA Director Porter Goss. Goss may have a chance to play
State Representative Heather Fitzenhagen
Another term-limited Republican, Heather Fitzenhagen, may throw her hat in the ring, and after 2018’s “Year of the Woman”, a female contender could be just the switch we need. Fitzenhagen has a strong legislative record on children and strong ties to the Fort Myers power players, though her record as a moderate will hurt her amongst conservative voters, but it may be a benefit to steal away more centrist Democrats who may get stuck with a more progressive candidate.
State Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto
After losing a round of pick up basketball to Curt Clawson, Lizbeth could be ready for a rematch. Like Fitzenhagen, a woman with strong connections to financial power players, a legislative record, and a lifetime of service. But also like Fitzenhagen, a moderate record that could harm her with conservatives.
Young Democratic Upstart?
Never let a good crisis go to waste. Democrats have been moving candidates on up, emboldened by President Trump’s (supposed) unpopularity. And though they may pull someone from the School Board, what is more likely is that they will find a young political upstart to enter the race.
It could be anyone. Literally anyone. And that’s what is scary. We have seen these political upsets before, and the Democrats will be pushing a national machine against this seat.
An interesting strategy for Democrats is to convert a young Republican to run. Historically, Democrats have switched sides to run for office with party support, with Jim Roach and Arvella Clare being classic examples. If Democrats can flip a Republican, and just pour money into that candidate, could he/she/they win?
Regardless, believe that the Democrats are huddling and will be united against what could be a factionalized primary.
Sincerely, resident Sean David Hartman
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