Alan Grayson is underfunded, beset by questions about an offshore hedge fund, and only now hiring key members of his campaign.
Of all of this election season’s Senate candidates, none have had a more difficult start to their race.
He has a summer to undo the damage.
Three months before Florida’s late August primary, the representative from Florida's 9th District is attempting an improbable comeback in his Senate race against Rep. Patrick Murphy, a contest many once felt would be a major showdown within the Democratic Party. The outspoken firebrand was supposed to lead a progressive charge against Murphy, whose moderate record liberals regarded warily.
Instead, he’s been buried by a deluge of bad news that has left many convinced that if his campaign isn’t dead yet, it soon will be after an onslaught of TV ads from Murphy and his allies.
Most anti-Grayson Democrats — a group that includes President Barack Obama and nearly all party leaders — profess they’re no longer worried about the congressman’s campaign.
To prove them wrong, Grayson must show that he can piece together a serious campaign and shift voter attention to Murphy. It’s a difficult task, one that might require the congressman to use his personal wealth toward that effort.
But for all his travails, Grayson’s uphill bid might also be a challenge well-suited for a candidate used to bucking his party’s establishment — a point even some of his critics acknowledge.
“I don’t know who he has supporting him, other than himself,” said John Morgan, an influential Democratic donor and Murphy supporter. “But he thrives in that role. He thrives in 'it’s me against the world.'”
New campaign manager
Officials with Grayson’s campaign say they’re ramping up their effort now, confident that they have enough time to change the complexion of the race.
In mid-May, Democratic operative Michael Ceraso stepped in as Grayson’s new campaign manager, according to campaign spokesman Dave Damron. Ceraso had most recently served as the California director for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, until he left because of strategic differences with the senator’s brain trust.
Grayson had been without a campaign manager since late last year, when then-manager Doug Dodson, a deputy campaign manager, and a senior adviser all left. Damron also said the campaign has hired additional field staffers, though he declined to say whether they have filled other senior positions.
Polls show that Murphy has taken an early lead on Grayson. But the surveys also show that most Florida Democrats are undecided about the race — a fact that heartens the Grayson campaign.
“We feel like folks have only begun to start paying attention to the race,” Damron said.
Senate Democratic leaders are fixated on the Murphy-Grayson race because Florida is a key battleground in November. With Sen. Marco Rubio vacating his seat, Donald Trump atop the GOP ticket, and a fractured Republican field of Senate candidates, Democrats view the Sunshine State as one of their best pickup opportunities.
But they consider the volatile Grayson a much weaker candidate than the moderate-leaning Murphy, who twice won a battleground House seat in Palm Beach. Wary that he could jeopardize a battleground race, Senate Democrats have united in opposition to the Orlando-area congressman.
Murphy has also been endorsed by Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. The president will host a fundraiser for Murphy on June 3 in Miami, according to Morgan, the Democratic donor, who said he received an invitation to the event.
Obama’s endorsements have a strong recent track record in Democratic primaries. His support was widely seen as essential to Katie McGinty’s come-from-behind victory this April in Pennsylvania’s Senate Democratic primary.
For Grayson, Obama’s involvement is hardly his biggest headache. In February, The New York Times reported that Grayson intermingled his duties as a congressman and hedge-fund manager. (The Times reported the hedge fund had operations in the Cayman Islands.)
That was followed by a report from Bloomberg , which said the congressman profited from investment in a mining company located in Eritrea, an east African country accused of human rights violations.
In April, the Office of Congressional Ethics released a report saying there was “substantial reason” to believe Grayson had committed a half-dozen violations related to his hedge fund and other matters, including omitting required information from his financial disclosures and using public resources to support an outside business. The House Committee on Ethics announced it was continuing its investigation into the congressman.
Grayson has said he is the victim of a witch hunt engineered by Democratic leaders opposed to his Senate candidacy. But the political problems the report creates are obvious, particularly among Democratic voters wary of politicians with a background in high finance.
A coming onslaught
Democrats expect that Murphy and his allies — possibly including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has endorsed him — will target this vulnerability with negative TV ads.
“The problem Grayson’s got is his introduction to people outside of his district isn’t going to be this liberal firebrand, it’s going to be the Murphy campaign explaining all these insane things about him,” said Steve Schale, a veteran Florida Democratic strategist who supports Murphy.
Whether the DSCC gets involved in the Florida Democratic primary is unknown. Officials there say they don’t publicly discuss potential spending decisions. But the group did spend nearly $3 million helping McGinty win.
Complicating the committee’s involvement is a heated argument Grayson had with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid this month in the Capitol. Angry over Reid’s demands that he end his Senate candidacy, Grayson reportedly yelled at the Democratic leader to “say my name.”
“When you push [Reid], he doesn’t push back,” said Morgan, who believes the confrontation guarantees the DSCC will spend money attacking Grayson. “He picks up a billy club and smashes your head over it.”
Grayson’s campaign was nearly broke by the end of March, with just over $400,000 on hand. Murphy, in contrast, had more than $5.6 million.
The lack of resources is likely Grayson’s biggest impediment as the race enters its final phase. In a Democratic primary, he actually matches up well on the issues with Murphy, who was a Republican before running for the House in 2012.
The Palm Beach lawmaker has voted to create a House committee to investigate the Benghazi terrorist attacks, backs the Keystone XL pipeline , and voted for a farm bill that included $20 billion in cuts to food stamps.
“Patrick Murphy is probably the worst Democrat running for office nationwide,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the liberal group Democracy for America, which has endorsed Grayson. (A spokeswoman for Murphy says the congressman "has a strong record of working with people to fight for progressive values.")
Murphy has also faced questions about his resume and his role helping clean up the Gulf oil spill in 2010. But those stories have been stoked mostly by Republican groups, who are eager to help Grayson defeat a candidate many of them view as a tougher matchup for the eventual Republican Senate nominee.
Republicans say they’ve been frustrated by Grayson’s campaign.
“There’s potential for Grayson to win, but I don’t know that that potential will be realized,” said one Republican watching the race. “Because he hasn’t done anything.”
He could still get help from some GOP groups: Ian Prior, spokesman for the GOP Super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, said the group hasn’t “ruled out getting involved in that primary.”
Grayson could also invest his own money into the race, though Democrats are unsure if he would take that step. His campaign declined to say whether he would.