Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Race of the Day- Florida U.S. Senate

90 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2012 Presidential Result: Blue State (South)

Outlook: Leans Republican

The Sunshine State is seeing a race for Senate that is probably one of the more intriguing contests of the year. Already, there have been twists and turns and developments that could be straight out of a soap opera. The bottom line though, is that Florida Republicans, and especially a candidate who has much to be disappointed about this year, have found a way to make the best out of a situation and prevent what was, for a time, looking like a likely Democrat pick-up, and the balance of power in the Senate may be on the line.

This seat also brought about an interesting contest six years ago. Republican Marco Rubio vaulted to political stardom, mounting an underdog campaign that eventually forced then-GOP Governor Charlie Crist out of the primary and out of the party. In the fall, Rubio beat the then-Independent Crist, as well as the formal Democrat nominee, fairly solidly to take a seat in the Senate. From Day 1, the young politician, who has an inspiring life-story as the son of Cuban immigrants, was seen as a potential future President. His oratorical skills reminded many people of being a Republican version of Barack Obama.

While Rubio owed much of his Florida Senate win to Tea Party supporters, he tried at first to appeal to all factions of the GOP while in the Senate, but failed in his attempt to work on a compromise solution for comprehensive immigration reform, and suddenly came under great fire from the right for working with Democrats and was accused of backing "amnesty." Rubio conceded defeat on the issue and began positioning himself back to the right. Through it all, he was seen as a smart and serious Senator when it came to foreign affairs issues, although he might not have been doing as much as he should have to tend to local matters back home in Florida.

Early last year, Rubio, who was towards the front in early polls before his "Gang of Eight" association, launched a bid for the Presidency, calling for a new generation of leadership and putting himself in stylistic contrast with candidates such as Democrat Hillary Clinton, and Republican Jeb Bush. The two men were friends and neighbors and had worked closely in Florida while Bush was Governor and Rubio was State House Speaker. Most of the Florida establishment stuck with Bush in the early stages of the 2016 primary cycle, but Rubio was undeterred in taking on the man who had been considered his political mentor, and to who helped him greatly in his 2010 Senate victory.

As he ran for President, Rubio spent a lot of time away from the Senate, missing votes, as many Senators who run for President do, and making it clear that he was frustrated by life in the Senate, and in focusing on running for President, was looking forward to putting the Senate behind him. He was not able to run for both offices under state law. Rubio was correct that Republicans were looking for something other than another Bush, and as the primaries progressed, he had some impressive early showings. Many expected that when the dust settled, Rubio would be the GOP nominee and a strong contender for the general election. There were also some setbacks, such as when he appeared overly scripted and rehearsed at a debate, but ultimately, after Jeb Bush left the race, Donald Trump turned his fire on Rubio, and the presence of Ted Cruz in the field, made it harder for Rubio to pick up enough conservative anti-Trump votes. Rubio, who for months had largely ignored Trump, went after him hard, and might have overreached by bringing up the size of Trump's hands. That led many to conclude that Rubio lacked the gravitas to be President, although he did offer substantive policy positions and had many strong debate performances.

Trump had some big wins on Super Tuesday and was well ahead of Rubio in the delegate count. It was clear that the Senator had to win his home state of Florida to stay viable in the race. Had Rubio done so, Trump likely would have eventually been held short of clinching enough delegates to win the nomination, but in a fairly stunning rebuke, the once rising star of the Florida GOP lost by many points to Trump. Immediately, Rubio suspended his Presidential campaign. At first, it looked like he would not ever endorse Trump, but he has since done so, although it is clear that Rubio is not comfortable with the nomination of the man who beat him.

There may be some other factors though in why Rubio is willing to now support the man he once called a "con-artist" and who derided him as "Little Marco." With the Senate seat opening up, many Democrats and Republicans took a look at running, and the GOP field would ultimately become semi-crowded. None of the contenders though really took off and none looked like a favorite for the August 30 primary. Polls were showing though that all of the Republicans would trail the most likely Democrat nominee in the general election.

Throughout his Presidential campaign, few people believed that Rubio will ultimately shift gears and run for reelection, especially after stories were printed suggesting he "hated" being in the Senate. After he left the Presidential race, Rubio said he was prepared for a new chapter in his life as a private citizen. Gradually though, establishment Republican types began talking to Rubio trying to convince him to change his mind, save a Senate seat, and preserve his political viability and visibility. This was definitely a gamble though. Rubio might have had to face a serious primary and then a tough general election. After the Orlando nightclub shooting, Rubio announced that he had decided he could best serve his state by seeking another term in the Senate, although it looked like he was already leaning towards that conclusion. The final consideration was that his friend, Lt. Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, one of the GOP Senate contenders, would agree to step aside.

Not only did Lopez-Cantera quickly exit the race, but so did Congressmen David Jolly and Ron DeSantis, in addition to businessman Todd Wilcox. The Republican Party was coming together to get behind Rubio in the Senate race, with one exception. Real estate developer Carlos Beruff, a tough talking Cuban-American, who had been appointed to some state government posts,. refused to drop out. Beruff remains the one serious obstacle to Rubio winning the nomination, although polls show the incumbent has a pretty large lead. Donald Trump continues to hang over the race though, as Beruff is very much in the Trump style, in terms of rhetoric and positions, which puts him in contrast with the more genial and forward thinking Rubio. The challenger has goaded Rubio in not doing enough to back the man who easily won the state's Presidential primary. Nonetheless, even before Rubio made it official, Trump himself called on his former opponent, whom he had called a horrible Senator to run again. Trump has made it clear that he supports Rubio in the primary, and Rubio has withstood any temptation to break with Trump. He addressed the GOP convention, endorsing Trump, in a very brief video message.

All of this means that Rubio is likely to win the primary and move on to November, and then, Trump might be a more negative factor in the general election. Rubio will have to find a way to walk a line between "party unity" and principle, as Trump's behavior seemingly gets worse by the week and his chances, in Florida and nationwide, look suspect. As someone who likes much about Rubio, and came to the point of hoping to support him for President, I am of course disappointed he, like many others, has not done what he knows is right, and that is fully denounce Trump. That's politics in 2016 though.

Now, we have to talk about the Democrat side of this race. Two major contenders will be facing off at the end of this month. The party establishment favorite is clearly Congressman Patrick Murphy, who captured a swing seat against a nationally known Republican in 2012. Murphy himself is a former Republican and there were indeed stories that he was meeting with the House GOP about possibly switching parties in order to save his seat in 2014. He stuck with the Democrats though, beat a weak opponent, and is now running for the Senate. If elected, he would be the first ever Senator born in the 1980s, and Murphy is in fact over a decade younger than Rubio, although they look about the same age.

In spite of his positioning as a somewhat centrist Democrat who is in line with the Florida electorate, Murphy has a bit of a checkered past. The son of a wealthy father, he had some drunken legal issues as a college student and during this campaign, a story broke that he had fabricated some parts of his pre-politics work history.

Nonetheless, Murphy looks like a virtual Boy Scout when compared to his chief primary opponent, and fellow Congressman, Alan Grayson. A favorite of liberal activists, Grayson has served two stints in Congress, after losing reelection in 2010 in a more Republican district than the one he currently holds. Known for staunch liberal views and harsh political rhetoric, Grayson has championed himself as a "Congressman with Guts" and when he first entered the Senate race, some polling indicated that his support with grassroots activists might make him a real threat to win the nomination. That became a matter of concern to other Democrats nationally, including outgoing Senate Leader Harry Reid, who do not like Grayson and do not believe he could win statewide.

Earlier this year, Grayson married a woman, who was already running to succeed him in his House district. Now, she will have the advantage or disadvantage of sharing his last name on the ballot. It is Grayson's previous marriage though that is more a focus of the Senate campaign. That is if the 25 year union was even ever a marriage at all, because apparently the ex-wife was married to someone else at the time she married Grayson, which led to an eventual annulment.  A story circulated a couple years back about a complaint of a physical encounter between the couple, but during this campaign, Lolita Grayson has now gone public alleging years of physical and mental domestic abuse. The candidate denies the allegation, saying that the former Mrs. Grayson is mentally unstable, and her charges are disavowed by their now adult daughter. Grayson claims that it was the wife who was physically abusive to him during the marriage. He also recently got very heated and confrontational with a reporter who asked him about these charges and threatened to get the Capitol Hill Police involved.

All of this has led Florida Democrats, even some who had previously endorsed Grayson, to realize that he is very damaged goods, and despite any problems that Murphy might have, he would be a better bet against Rubio. Grayson is very wealthy in his own right though, and it is hard to see him going away quietly or calling on people to rally around Murphy in the name of party unity. If he were to somehow win the primary, Republican chances of keeping this seat improve significantly.

Most likely though it will be Rubio facing Murphy. Many Democrats have delighted in Rubio's Presidential failure, and they call him an empty suit, but they should perhaps regret the fact that Rubio is now available to run for reelection, because Murphy probably would still be the favorite against those who were formally running in the primary. In fact, the GOP field may have been so divided, that Beruff could have captured a plurality and he would be virtually unelectable in Florida.

Recent polls have shown Rubio ahead of Murphy, although by somewhat different margins. Some Republicans believe that Rubio has this in the bag, and while I consider him the favorite, I do not think there is yet evidence to suggest that this could not turn out to be a real contest down the wire. Murphy is going to try to get great mileage in tying Trump to Rubio and goading his Senate opponent about what he really thinks of Trump. It is going to put him in an awkward position, and if Trump truly is destined to be wiped out nationally in the Presidential race, Rubio may not be in the clear in Florida.

My sense though is that while not enough Floridians, including Republicans, were willing to see Rubio as a President at this point in his career, he still is respected and liked enough to give him the advantage. How Rubio approaches six more years in the Senate, and what the opportunity could mean for what are certainly the remnants of national ambition, will be up to him. I am certain though that he, like many other Republicans, are counting the days until the Donald Trump nightmare is over.

Rubio campaign link:


Senate races predicted thus far: 3 D (2 Safe, 1 Likely), 5 R (2 Safe, 1 Likely, 2 Leans)
Overall predicted thus far: 39 D, 35 R


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