Marco Rubio may be a bumbling excuse for a US senator, but when it comes to Florida politics, he’s no fool. A career politician and failed presidential contender, Rubio is campaigning this year for a third term as Florida’s senior senator. And he’s running scared.
Claiming that he’s up against “a Democratic Party that’s been captured by the far left and Marxist misfits,” Rubio made an anguished appearance on Fox News on the day of Florida’s primaries to plead for campaign money. Rubio faced no threat on the Republican side of Tuesday’s ballot. Nor, it turned out, did challenger Val Demings on the Democratic side.
Demings, the former Orlando police chief and current member of the US House who did a star turn as a key prosecutor during Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, won the Democratic Senate primary with 84 percent of the vote. She carried all but two of Florida’s 67 counties in a contest with an influential lawyer who was a former majority whip for the Democratic Caucus in the state House of Representatives.
The uniting of the often-fractious Florida Democratic Party behind Demings is one political development that scares Rubio. So, too, does the fact that Demings, with a campaign that has relied heavily on small donations, raised $4.7 million in July, as compared with $1.9 million for the incumbent. But what’s really shaken Rubio are the poll numbers. A University of North Florida poll, conducted shortly before the primary, had Demings winning 48 percent support to 44 percent for Rubio. Other polls give Rubio the lead, but he’s generally polling under 50 percent—a danger signal for an incumbent—while the Democrat is steadily in the 40s and rising.
Those numbers are consequential for Florida, and for the rest of the United States. The Senate is currently split 50-50 between the party caucuses, and two of the Democrats—West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema—have frequently broken with the party on key issues. The Biden White House and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer need to increase the Democratic majority in order to advance the president’s legislative priorities without facing obstruction from corporate-aligned “centrists” like Manchin and Sinema. That had looked like a tall order in a midterm election cycle where the party in power usually loses seats.
Even as the party’s fortunes have improved in recent weeks—with better economic news and legislative successes such as the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act—the need to expand the number of “flippable” seats has been clear.
Democratic Senate candidates John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin are leading in races for Republican-held seats, and Democrat Tim Ryan has been showing strength in the fight for a Republican-held seat in Ohio. But Democratic incumbents face serious challenges in Nevada, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Georgia. So Democrats require a wider number of states where they can score pick-ups. The good news for the party is that Cheri Beasley, a former chief justice of North Carolina’s Supreme Court, is tied in the latest poll from that state. And, suddenly, Demings is in the running.
“My trajectory over these last few weeks has been incredible,” explains Demings, reflecting on the fact that, after trailing in the polls for months, she is now in what looks like a highly competitive race. Demings says Rubio has “started to get nervous…[and] even started begging for donations on Fox News!”
The begging took on a desperate character. “We are being out-raised by these far-left Marxists who continue to give her $50 a months or whatever,” grumbled Rubio during his primary-day appearance.
The truth is that the contributions to Demings are coming from grassroots Democrats who are now seeing her race as a winnable one.
When Demings decided to give up a safe House seat and make the Senate bid, many pundits portrayed the race as a tough one. Florida had been trending Republican in recent years. Trump won it by over 100,000 votes in 2016, and by more than 350,000 in 2020. Rubio won by wide margins in 2010 and 2016. Republican Rick Scott grabbed the state’s second Senate seat in 2018. Republican Ron DeSantis narrowly won the governorship that same year; he’s since positioned himself as one of the party’s leading cultural warriors and a potential 2024 presidential candidate.
But Demings knew what she was getting into. She’s has run a smart, issue-focused campaign, highlighting her support for Social Security and Medicare, public education, and federal investment in infrastructure—a big concern in the rapidly growing state of Florida. On all those issues, she has sought to distinguish herself from the incumbent. And nowhere has she emphasized their differences more than on the issue of reproductive freedom, which moved to the forefront of her campaign after the US Supreme Court rejected the abortion rights protections outlined in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. As Florida voters grow increasingly concerned about threats to reproductive rights, Demings has emphasized her pro-choice stance and early support for the Ensuring Access to Abortion Act, which prevents state actors from interfering in out-of-state abortion care. And she has bluntly denounced Republican politicians who seek to prosecute abortion cases:
“Law enforcement officers are trying to catch murderers and rapists and robbers, but antiabortion radicals want to use our officers to throw women and doctors in jail. As a former law enforcement officer, I am revolted by proposals to misuse the critical time and resources of police officers by using them to punish women. As a mother and a woman of faith I believe in the right of Americans to make our own life decisions. We’re taking aggressive action to protect the right to choose, keep our law enforcement officers focused on real criminals, and protect the freedom of the American people against those who want to control us.”
Commercials from the Demings campaign draw a clear line between her stance and Rubio’s anti-choice position. “Rubio supports forced pregnancy, even for victims of rape and incest.” a late June ad declared. “He wrote the bill to criminalize doctors, including jail time. Even worse, Rubio voted to mandate unmarried women to publicize their sexual encounters.” That last reference was to the state’s so-called “Scarlet Letter” law, under which, Florida’s Democratic Party has noted, “single mothers who wanted to put their babies up for adoption had to purchase ads in their local newspaper detailing their recent sexual histories and partners in order to alert the father. The legislation had no exceptions for victims of rape or incest, and even required girls under the age of 18 to comply.”
Rubio’s extreme social conservatism is not a good fit for Florida voters who are focusing on the abortion issue. A July University of South Florida poll found that 57 percent of Floridians disagree with the Supreme Court decision to undermine abortion rights.
“Elections are their best when it’s like a clear choice between two candidates, and the choice couldn’t be clearer,” Rubio announced recently.
The senator is right about the distinction—and, come November, it could be his undoing.