Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera will retain his current office as he runs for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by presidential candidate and fellow South Florida Republican Marco Rubio.
Standing with his family, Lopez-Cantera formally announced his national aspirations Wednesday during a rally at All American Containers, a Miami company that has close ties to the Republican Party.
“As a family, we have decided that I’m running for the United States Senate,” Lopez-Cantera said to cheers of “Carlos” from supporters. “I’m running so that they can live in the kind of country that gave my Cuban immigrant family the blessings of liberty and freedom that only the United States of America offers.”
The long-awaited decision by Lopez-Cantera, a former state House majority leader from Coral Gables, has him joining Northeast Florida Congressman Ron DeSantis and Orlando businessman Todd Wilcox in the Republican primary.
Tampa Bay-area Congressman David Jolly and Northwest Florida Congressman Jeff Miller are reportedly also mulling the GOP primary contest.
Congressmen Patrick Murphy of Jupiter and Alan Grayson of Orlando are among those running for the seat on the Democratic side.
At this stage, the race doesn’t appear to have a clear front-runner. A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed that most Florida voters knew little about Grayson, Murphy, DeSantis and Lopez-Cantera.
Democrats were quick to try to paint Lopez-Cantera as a professional politician who has amassed personal wealth in various offices and who has done little since leaving the Miami-Dade County property appraisers office to become lieutenant governor in early 2014. Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant attacked his record in the Legislature.
“Lopez-Cantera supported cutting over a billion dollars from public schools and universities while hiking tuition,” Tant said in a prepared statement. “He voted to allow near-shore oil drilling and sponsored massive taxpayer handouts to some of Florida’s biggest corporations — including $3.2 billion Duke Energy fleeced from ratepayers. He whipped votes to pass a mandatory ultrasound bill, and even voiced enthusiastic support for bringing an Arizona-style immigration law to Florida, calling the measure ‘common sense.’ ”
Meanwhile, Lopez-Cantera also might have to overcome criticism from the far-right that he may not be conservative enough.
Ken Cuccinelli II, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, sent out a release Monday declaring Lopez-Cantera a “liberal” Republican.
“Lopez-Cantera’s record includes supporting wasteful spending at the state level, in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, and former governor Charlie Crist’s budget that raised taxes by $2.2 billion,” Cuccinelli wrote to members in a “RINO alert” memo.
Lopez-Cantera said the Democratic attacks are a sign of concern about his candidacy. During a conference call with reporters Wednesday, he also defended his conservative record as an eight-year legislator and as lieutenant governor.
“I can actually print out legislation that I’ve passed that cuts taxes. I can actually print out legislation that I’ve passed that reduces the impact of government on people’s lives,” Lopez-Cantera said. “And these are conservative accomplishments.”
For good measure, Lopez-Cantera called Crist, the former Republican governor who unsuccessfully ran last year for the office as a Democrat, “a horrible governor.”
Lopez-Cantera also said that the campaign won’t interfere with his duties as lieutenant governor.
“Are you going to ask the congressmen who are running for this office the same question?” Lopez-Cantera asked.
When asked for a comment about Lopez-Cantera’s announcement Wednesday, John Tupps, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott, said in an email that “the Lt. Governor helps provide valuable insight on many important issues facing the state.”
Lopez-Cantera, who was born in Spain but is of Cuban descent, was tapped by Scott in January 2014 to fill what had grown into a 10-month void in the lieutenant governor’s office after the resignation of Jennifer Carroll.
Scott, who attended a ceremonial bill signing Wednesday in Jacksonville as Lopez-Cantera was on the South Florida stage announcing his senatorial plans, told reporters last week that any decision about remaining in the office was up to the lieutenant governor.
“That’s a decision he’ll make,” Scott told reporters.
Lopez-Cantera said he’s talked with his friend Rubio, but not brought up an endorsement.
“He’s kind of got a lot of his plate right now,” Lopez-Cantera said.
Lopez-Cantera begins the campaign with nearly $900,000 already in the bank through his Reform Washington super-PAC now being run by former state House speaker and Tallahassee lobbyist Dean Cannon and through a separate leadership PAC.
DeSantis, who is expected to receive support from national conservative groups such as the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks, has nearly $1.1 million in his campaign account, according to the Federal Election Commission website.