By Hastings Wyman –
All signs point to a presidential bid for US Sen. Marco Rubio (R), and that means an open US Senate seat in highly competitive Florida. Although the qualifying period is not until May 2-6, 2016, Sunshine State politicos are beginning to line up for what may well be contested primaries in both parties. The primaries will be held next year on August 30.
On the Democratic side, the race is already beginning to take shape. Two-term US Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) has announced and has received nods of approval and some out-right endorsements from his party’s establishment in both Washington, DC, and Florida, including former Gov. Charlie Crist (D), US Rep. Ted Deutch (D) and Florida Democratic Chairwoman Allison Tant. Sen. Jon Tester, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), did not endorse Murphy outright, but praised him as a good candidate.
Murphy’s assets include a wealthy family and a good fundraising record; he raised more than $5 million in his 2012 campaign to unseat hard-right firebrand US Rep. Allen West (R). “Murphy is just a fundraising machine, especially on the Internet,” says Barney Bishop, a Tallahassee-based political analyst. Murphy’s good looks and his youth (31) will help also him.
In the General Election, Murphy’s centrist voting record would appeal to independents and moderate Democrats; he is the most conservative Florida Democrat in the House. “Murphy is the kind of Democrat with a very good chance of winning this state,” says Bishop. Moreover, if he is the nominee, he will be on the ballot in a presidential year, which generally produces a higher Democratic turnout in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 420,000.
A Florida Republican operative, however, contends that Murphy is over-rated. He notes that he barely defeated Tea Party favorite West in 2012 in a district that wasn’t even West’s district; he had moved into it for the race. Murphy is “not a household name or in a key media market… He’s young, untested and unknown, but he’s the best that the Democrats have,” noting that former Gov. Charlie Crist (D) and Democratic National Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz have declined to run.
Murphy could also face a rough-and-tumble challenge in the primary from feisty US Rep. Alan Grayson (D), who told The Hill that he had “the largest Democratic donor base in the House, 116,000 contributors.” Grayson met with DSCC chair Tester, and reported that he did not discourage him from running. Grayson would run to Murphy’s left, making him a strong contender in the primary, if not the General Election. “I’m going to run a Barack Obama type campaign if I run,” he said. While Wasserman Schultz has not endorsed Grayson, when asked about Murphy’s candidacy, she pointedly declined to endorse Murphy and said she expected “a robust” primary, saying the party had a “deep bench” of prospective candidates.
Grayson also has mega-baggage, including a messy divorce proceeding in which he charged his wife with bigamy. He has two qualities that are mixed blessings. His populist politics and his solidly liberal voting record are likely to play well in the primary, where a large number of Democrats are essentially national, not Florida, Democrats. Moreover, he won’t hold backing from sticking the “not a real Democrat” label on Murphy, who was a Republican until a few years ago; indeed, he contributed money to Mitt Romney in 2008. The downside to this, of course, is that Florida has lots of independents, and centrists in both parties, so Democrats like US Sen. Bill Nelson and former US Sen. Bob Graham, run better in the November election.
Grayson’s other double-edged characteristic is that he is outspoken and intemperate in his public comments. When running for Congress against Daniel Webster, he called him “Taliban Dan” and referred to him as “a religious fanatic” by editing some quotes of Webster’s that misrepresented his position. And he once sent out a fundraiser that compared the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan, with the “T” a flaming cross. “He will run a very inflammatory campaign,” says one observer of the state’s politics, albeit a Republican, who described Grayson as “crazy as a sprayed roach.”
A Public Policy Poll (PPP) of Democrats showed Grayson leading Murphy 22% to 21%, with most being undecided, indicating that most Florida Democrats have yet to focus on the race.
The Republican ballot is far less settled. No Republican has actually announced that he or she will run. The potential candidates getting the most attention from the media and the political community include Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, state Attorney General Pam Bondi, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and former state House Speaker Will Weatherford. Both Atwater and Lopez-Cantera have traveled to Washington to meet with national party leaders. Lopez-Cantera is close to Rubio and would have a strong base in South Florida. Weatherford, a youthful 35, served as House Speaker in the 2012-2014 session and was “extremely popular,” says Bishop. Weatherford’s father-in-law is Allan Bense, a former state House Speaker himself and a successful businessman with ties to much of the state’s business establishment. And three congressmen have not ruled out the race: Ron DeSantis, Vern Buchanan and Curt Clawson.
“Jeff Atwater is probably the leading candidate, the most serious. He has nothing to lose, since he can run without giving up his office … Some folks will wait till 2018,” says the GOP insider.
Occasionally mentioned in the media is former US Rep. West (R), an aggressive and outspoken Tea Party favorite, who is to Florida’s GOP what Grayson is to the Democrats. But West has moved to Texas and has made no moves toward returning for the 2016 race. Moreover, with the filing deadline more than a year away, a Sunshine State political operative (R) says, “I’ve got a hunch that one of the presidential candidates, like [Mike] Huckabee or [Ben] Carson, who now claim Florida as their residence, might decide to run for the Senate if they are unsuccessful in their White House bid.
This early opinion polls reflect mainly name ID and should not be taken as a sign of strength in the long haul. Nevertheless, at this point, the PPP survey of a hypothetical Republican Primary showed West with 38%, Bondi 25%, Atwater 12% and Lopez-Cantera 8%.
The PPP survey of General Election matchups showed a close race is likely. Atwater led Murphy 41% to 39% and led Grayson 41% to 40%. Bondi beat Murphy 45% to 41% and beat Grayson 45% to 42%. On the other hand, Murphy led Lopez-Cantera 41% to 34% and Grayson led him 40% to 36%. West also trailed both Democrats by narrow margins.