TALLAHASSEE ― U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney has joined a long list of Republican congressmen who will not run for re-election in 2020, and his decision has opened the door to a number of potential candidates who could try to win the heavily GOP seat in Southwest Florida.
Rooney, a Naples Republican who recently refused to rule out a vote to impeach President Donald Trump, announced his retirement during a Fox News interview on Saturday.
Florida House Majority Leader Dane Eagle told the News Service of Florida on Monday he is “strongly considering” running in Congressional District 19 in Lee and Collier counties.
“This will be the fifth congressman since 2012 in this district, and Southwest Florida deserves consistent and conservative representation,” said Eagle, a Cape Coral Republican who has held his state House seat since 2012 and faces term limits next year.
State Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican who lost a 2012 congressional race, also is mulling a run for the Rooney seat.
“I’m humbled by all of the people in Southwest Florida who have encouraged me to run again for Congress,” he said. “I am strongly considering getting into the race.”
Other potential candidates who have not ruled out a run are term-limited state Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, and former Rep. Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers Republican who narrowly lost a 2018 bid for state agriculture commissioner.
Benacquisto, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said in a statement that her focus right now is on a special legislative session that kicked off Monday.
During the special session, her committee is playing a key role in a showdown about whether the Senate should remove or reinstate suspended Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who was ousted in January by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Caldwell said he is open to considering a congressional run but is hesitant to jump into the race because he has a young daughter. However, he said, “I would never say never.”
State Senate Majority Leader Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, quickly rejected the possibility of running for the congressional seat. She said she has “no intentions” to run.
“I’m focused on the future of Florida — and that means taking on the opportunities and challenges I can tackle as a leader in the Florida Senate,” Passidomo said.
Passidomo is also locked in a race with Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, to become Senate president in 2022, following the upcoming two-year term of Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby.
Outside of politicians with Tallahassee backgrounds, Caldwell said he could see county officials jump into the race, such as former Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott or Lee County commissioners Brian Hamman and Cecil Pendergrass.
But since the region is home to some of the wealthiest people in the nation, Caldwell added that someone can “write a check and immediately be a serious candidate.” Rooney is considered one of the wealthiest members of Congress.
Caldwell added that he will be interested to see whether the district elects an outsider or someone with a more-traditional political resume. He added that Rooney’s stances on issues presented a “mismatch” to what voters in the district want, including being open to impeaching Trump.
“There’s no question that the majority of (district) voters don’t view this inquiry as legitimate,” Caldwell said.
When Rooney was pressed during the television interview Saturday about whether his retirement announcement freed him up to vote for impeaching the president, he refused to give a concrete answer.
“I’ll just do the same thing I was going to do anyway,” he said. “It’s just like we raise our kids and tell our employees, you have to do the right thing at all times.”
The former construction company owner said he has grown frustrated with the “intense partisanship” in Congress, while noting he has been able to accomplish everything he set out to do since 2017, when he was sworn in.
“I thought the idea was you came and did your public service and left … and that’s what I want to be an example of,” Rooney said.