Why you should care

Because in politics, as one star fades another rises.

The West Miami burb Hialeah is known for having the highest percentage of Cubans in any American city — which is to say that a football field rally here is a home-field advantage for the Cuban-American politico and favored son of Miami as he crosses the stage. He’s young, gregarious and ascendant, rattling off Spanish overtures to the crowd, which chants “Sí! Sí! Sí!” Marco Rubio? Hardly. Meet the Lieutenant Governor of Florida: Carlos López-Cantera.

On paper, it’s easy enough to confuse the pair. After all, these fellow Miami Republicans are longtime friends. When Rubio steps off the campaign bus in Hialeah, the first to greet him is López-Cantera, and they rejoice with a fratty hug. But López-Cantera’s proximity to Rubio is all the more crucial today: He’s one of the front-runners in a heated five-person race for the Senate seat that Rubio left vacant to run for president. The 42-year-old has the inside track, gifted with a statewide position that mandates travel across Florida — allowing for plenty of elbow rubbing — and the implicit support of Gov. Rick Scott, whose staff López-Cantera has mined to fill his campaign roster. Rubio, of course, has also given López-Cantera an all-but-official endorsement in Miami: “I want to introduce you to a really good friend of mine and someone who could very well be … the next senator from Florida,” Rubio said.

And why not? With an ad-worthy tale of a young father who fled Cuba (sound familiar?), past leadership in the Florida statehouse and a sun-bronzed skin tone that matches the emerging body politic, he very well could be the next Rubio. That’s the rose-tinted view of campaigning, of course. Here, crammed into an SUV — which López-Cantera calls “his office” as we slip in — it’s harder to feel all the grandeur while sitting next to dozens of water bottles strewn across the backseat. Yes, López-Cantera and Rubio also share a penchant for staying hydrated, but spend some time with the lieutenant governor and differences begin to emerge.

The more López-Cantera talks, the easier it is to see a contrast emerging between him and Rubio.

The former property appraiser is less flash, more nit and grit. He’s fried the big fish, authoring (and passing) what some called the toughest mortgage-fraud laws in the country while refusing taxpayer-funded protection because he felt it was wasteful and cutting lawmakers’ salaries during the Great Recession. “He’s willing to do things that are necessary even if they are unpopular,” says Adam Hasner, a former majority leader in the Florida House of Representatives. And when López-Cantera is asked about his accomplishments, he lists humbler — dare we say boring — pride points, like making form submission for small businesses more efficient. “My core belief system is about getting things done,” he says, passionately.

That’s the twofold problem of Washington, D.C., he says: The old guard, immobilized by love for its own prestige, and the new breed, obsessed more with empty victories than enacting change. “It upsets me when congressmen take pride in introducing something, with no intention of actually getting it done,” López-Cantera says, adding that he supports term limits for legislators. Right now, he’s reading Our Lost Constitution, by Utah Senator Mike Lee, a man often bandied together with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as part of that “new breed.” But when I ask if he’s studying to learn what kind of senator he would be, he balks. “I’m running to be different,” says the dimpled candidate, whose swept-right mop is reminiscent of a Latino Jack Kennedy. “I would aspire to be results-oriented,” he adds, and less concerned with reelection or higher office.

The more López-Cantera talks, the easier it is to see a contrast emerging between him and Rubio, whose spotty attendance record and lack of meaningful legislative wins gives the impression of a man more interested in running for, well, president. (For his part, López-Cantera rejects such a critique of Rubio: “I know it, through and through, to my very soul, that he is what this country needs right now.”) Back in the day — in the Miami-Dade County headquarters for Bob Dole’s 1986 presidential run — the pair met as volunteers. López-Cantera often followed Rubio’s path; he was elected to the Florida House four years after Rubio, and while Rubio became speaker in 2006, López-Cantera became Republican majority leader in 2010. His two young girls held birthday parties with Rubio’s kids, and the legislators and their wives vacation together — the location, though, is “private,” López-Cantera says when I ask.

A recent Washington Post-Univision poll had López-Cantera tied for first in the five-person Republican field, but nearly three-quarters of likely Republican voters reported they didn’t know who they’d support in the state’s senate primary in August. Because his work is away from the public eye, in relative obscurity compared with other positions, it’s hard to build name recognition — or a war chest, says state strategist John Dowless, who is advising one of López-Cantera’s opponents, ex-CIA case officer Todd Wilcox. (“We are extremely proud of our finance team,” López-Cantera’s spokesperson Courtney Alexander told OZY; announced on Tuesday, it includes megadonor and Rubio backer Norman Braman, a billionaire car dealer and a super PAC also created to support the state senator.)

But is there even room for a quieter candidate in this bombastic era of self-promo politics? “You’re talking about two separate things,” López-Cantera tells me. “There’s a difference between campaigning and governing.” Perhaps. Yet the latter doesn’t come without the former. And whether Florida is ready for a nuts-and-bolts senator remains to be seen. “In terms of eloquence and charisma, there’s a pretty strong difference” between López-Cantera and Rubio, Dowless says. And the lieutenant governorship in Florida is “pretty much a do-nothing position,” notes Kathryn DePalo, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University.

Inevitably, our conversation circles back to Rubio and a time when, as speaker, he gave every member a paperweight bearing an oft-circulated Ronald Reagan quote: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit,” it read. López-Cantera’s take? “I’ve lived by that.”

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.