The four Republican candidates for U.S. Senate were the main event Saturday night at the Hillsborough Republican Party's Lincoln 2016 Red Ball.
Congressman David Jolly of Dunedin; Congressman Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach; Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami; and businessman Todd Wilcox of Orlando are vying to succeed first-term Sen. Marco Rubio, who himself is trying to succeed President Barack Obama in the White House.
Each spoke to the crowd of about 550 people at the Tampa Convention Center, brandishing their conservative bonafides.
Congressman DeSantis has represented the 6th Congressional District - which stretches from Jacksonville to Titusville, since 2012. He's a graduate of Harvard Law School, and served as a Judge Advocate General in the Navy.
He says President Obama has abused his authority with executive actions. Though the election for Senate is in November, and means the winner wouldn’t serve while Obama was in office, DeSantis said he wouldn't let the President name a new Supreme Court justice that would tip the balance in favor of the court's liberal wing.
"So how tragic would it be, if a president who is so dismissive of Constitutional government succeeded in appointing the replacement for a justice like Antonin Scalia, who was so dedicated to defending our Constitution," he said. "We cannot let that happen."
Congressman David Jolly of Pinellas County won a special election to replace U.S. Rep. C.W. 'Bill' Young after his death in office. Jolly, who had served as Young's general counsel, defeated Democrat Alex Sink and Libertarian Lucas Overby in 2014. He then won the regular election later that year.
Jolly told the Tampa-area Republicans that he backs the concept of American exceptionalism. In particular, he vows to fight Russia's expansionism in Ukraine, China building bases on dredge islands in the South China Sea, and the efforts of ISIS in Syria.
Jolly also attacked what he called the president's system of "socialized medicine" and "failed leadership in Washington."
"And I will pledge to you this, as a sitting member of Congress from this area and a candidate for the United States Senate, I will never resign over our creator's sacred gift of freedom at the altar of big government," he said. "And nor will I reside over our national security - our homeland security - or our personal security, at those who wish to take it from us."
Carlos López-Cantera was born in Spain to Cuban refugees before his family moved to Miami when he was a child. He was elected four times to the Florida House. He served as House Majority Leader before being tapped by Governor Scott in 2014 to be his Lieutenant Governor - the first Hispanic to hold that position.
López-Cantera said that if elected, he would limit himself to two terms in the Senate. If you can't get it done in 12 years, you're part of the problem, he said.
"Too much government is a problem. But I've honed special skills in the private sector. Skills that have served me well in my time in government. A skill that I think is lacking in Washington, D.C.," he said. "That special skill is common sense."
Todd Wilcox is the only non-politician of the group. He grew up in South Tampa, is a former Special Forces commander and CIA veteran, and founded Patriot Defense Group, a defense contractor in Orlando.
Wilcox says he started three businesses, has "boots on the ground" experience in both business and the military, and vows to "represent a return to citizen government." He wants a Constitutional Amendment to have a balanced budget. And Wilcox wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Labor Relations Board, which safeguards employees' rights to organize.
"And it is not enough to contribute to the echo chamber of all the white noise that we hear about what's wrong in America. It is time that our leaders lead," he says. "It's time that we elect a warrior, not a lawyer."
Right now, most polls have Jolly with a commanding lead over DeSantis, with Lopez-Cantera and Wilcox falling far behind. The primary will be held August 30th, with the winner facing one of three Democrats also jockeying for Rubio's Senate seat.