A few months ago, Dane Eagle seemed ready to enjoy a life away from public service. Term limits prevented the Florida House Republican Leader from seeking reelection, and a recent wedding provided an opportunity to settle down.
Then U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney sent a shock wave through Southwest Florida on a Saturday morning and announced he wouldn’t seek a third term. Eagle, who had passed on a state Senate run earlier this year, took an interest immediately in the open seat. In early November, he became the first big-name competitor to throw his hat in the ring. Today, he hosts his first fundraiser.
As he prepares to address a crowd at the Marina at Edison Ford, Eagle knows this won’t be a cakewalk. Six Republican candidates have already announced they want Rooney’s job, and more are expected to jump in, but Eagle believes he is exactly what Florida’s 19th Congressional District needs right now.
“I was born and raised in the district,” Eagle said. “I’ve got a record that has been proven and established, and people know what they get with me.”
Now, he just needs tens of thousands of Republican voters to agree.
Rooney never held elected office before winning election to Congress in 2016. In fact, neither had his predecessor Curt Clawson, elected in a special election in 2014, nor had Trey Radel, elected to the post in 2012.
It has made every experienced politician with their eye on Washington look around for the next candidate with a big bag of money.
But Eagle and those around him are counting on voters growing tired of the consequences of electing unknowns.
“Whoever gets elected will be our fifth member of Congress since 2012,” said Terry Miller, a campaign consultant for Eagle. “We got on this roll of electing outsiders, and that has not worked out well for us.”
Recently, conservatives have grown upset at Rooney for voicing support of investigating the White House. But Clawson only served one full term before calling it quits, and Radel resigned in disgrace after a cocaine bust.
Now, Miller thinks voters want a candidate with some longevity, someone who can build up seniority in Washington.
While Eagle preaches the value of term limits, the 36-year-old plans to plant his flag in Congress for at least the better part of a decade, he said. “Voters, myself included, want stability and to know the next Congressman will be there for some time,” he said.
But he’s not the only candidate with a record of elected experience. State Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, who announced this week, has served alongside Eagle for four terms. Randy Henderson also just jumped into the race and is in his third term as Fort Myers Mayor. While new to the area, former Minnesota state Rep. Dan Severson also has a record to run on and ran statewide in his old home state.
A couple of businessmen, Dr. William Figlesthaler and Antonio Dumornay, have already opened campaign accounts as well, though it remains to be seen how much they will self fund.
So Eagle has also sought to set himself apart through endorsements, both at the local level and statewide. Political observers expect the local support from longtime sheriffs, former and current lawmakers and municipal officials will help in organizing an army of door knockers, while seeing the incoming Florida Senate President and Speaker back Eagle will mean a great deal to donors.
Rising to the top
Impartial observers see a solid foundation under Eagle but suggest he still has work ahead to be considered a front-runner.
“Dane Eagle is a very viable,” said Peter Bergerson, a political science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. “He’s been an effective Legislator and is well known at least in Cape Coral and in Tallahassee. But the Mayor is well established in Fort Myers, and Fitzenhagen is obviously a candidate who can well represent the women vote.
“It’s probably too early right now to say who is 1, 2 or 3. It will really depend on the organization they are able to pull together, they money they can put together and the name recognition of the campaign.”
Susan MacManus, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida, said Eagle needs to firm up support early, particularly with so many candidates vying for the job.
“At this fundraiser, he has to get people to connect with a check and then to go out and recruit others to his candidacy,” she said. “With a crowded field, a lot of this is grassroots politics and door-to-door activity.”
It’s worth looking at an odd model for Eagle, MacManus said, and consider how Andrew Gillum became the Democratic nominee. After polling in fourth place in a five-person field for months, Gillum was able to secure the nomination with less than 35% of the vote. And while Gillum narrowly lost statewide to Republican Ron DeSantis, the winner of the GOP primary in this deep red district likely means a ticket to Washington.
MacManus also suggests voters in the 19th aren’t as enamored by inexperience as it may seem. Rooney may not have held elected office, but was an Ambassador to the Holy See, after all.
Eagle is quick to praise Rooney’s experience and to adopt his position on issues like Everglades restoration. “His work in water quality is something the next person this area send to Washington needs to continue,” Eagle said.
But he promises a more conservative stance on issues like illegal immigration, and he vows to be a steadfast supporter of President Donald Trump.
For the moment, Eagle has little negative to say about Republican competitors. He will continue to serve the region alongside Fitzenhagen in the next Legislative Session, and as part of the Lee County Legislative Delegation, he also will work with local mayors. There’s little reason to pick a fight now.
But he already raised more than $100,000 in the first day of his campaign and knows it will take more to win an open seat.
“We know it’s going to be a wide-open race, and it’s going to be crowded,” Eagle said. “I will do the best I can with my team of supporters. I think we have been doing well with fundraising and start with good name ID. We will continue to do everything we can.”