Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's presidential exploration roiled Capitol Hill last week. Back in his home state, pols also had their eye on another Sunshine State Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio, whose own presidential ambitions could kick off a pivotal open-seat race for Senate.
Rubio has expressed interest in running for president, and he's made clear he will not run for both that office and Senate at the same time. Following Bush's announcement, Rubio said in a statement that his decision will not be impacted by "who else might be running" for president. If Rubio seeks re-election, Democrats' decision to invest in the race will be far more complicated. The senator is well-known and a strong fundraiser, with $3.1 million already in the bank as of the end of September.
Florida Democrats don't have a deep bench of potential statewide candidates, exemplified most recently by former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist's unsuccessful comeback bid as a Democrat this year. Still, party operatives said they view the seat as a good pick-up opportunity in a year when the party must net five seats to secure the Senate majority.
Rep. Patrick Murphy and Rep.-elect Gwen Graham are the most-often mentioned potential Democratic Senate contenders. Murphy won re-election in a competitive district last month by 20 points, raising an equally impressive $5.1 million for the race. Earlier this month, Murphy told CQ Roll Call he was “thinking about it.” In the conversation outside the House chamber, he painted himself as a “bipartisan” and “independent” Democrat who focuses on local issues.
Graham was elected to Congress last month by ousting an incumbent, and she's made it clear so far that she wants to seek re-election. But Graham's last name gives her statewide recognition — her father is Bob Graham, the popular former senator and governor, whose name still carries clout.
Running for Senate would be a quick turnaround for Graham, but Democrats point out that it might be to her benefit.
Graham will likely face a grueling re-election race in her North Florida district every two years for as long as she decides to stay in the House. And with the state Supreme Court slated to take up a lawsuit challenging Florida’s congressional lines in March, the map could get worse for Graham.
If the lower court is overruled and the current lines are thrown out, Graham’s district would no longer include part of Tallahassee, which is packed with Democratic votes. All of that, Democratic sources speculated, could impel Graham to take a risk on a Senate bid.
Even if she lost a challenge to Rubio, Florida is a state where losing a bid for statewide office isn't necessarily a detriment to future bids. Bush, Crist and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson all lost statewide campaigns before they won one.
“Typically people have run before statewide, before they succeed statewide,” Republican consultant Brad Todd said.
Democrats also mentioned Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, as possible Senate challengers. Schultz would be a formidable opponent in a primary, hailing from the heavily Democratic Miami area. But her stark partisan comments as DNC chairwoman could hinder her campaign in a general.
If Rubio opted not to run, the open seat would be even more attractive for Democrats. Any other Republican candidate would undoubtedly have a lower national profile and less fundraising firepower.
But Republicans do have a deep bench of statewide office holders — Florida Republican consultant Rick Wilson described it as an “embarrassment of riches” — including Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a former congressman. Several Republicans also mentioned state Speaker Will Weatherford, who is term-limited.
Anitere Flores, a young, Hispanic state senator and former state representative, could also be a strong candidate for Republicans, sources said.
There are also several Republican congressmen, including Rep. Vern Buchanan, John Mica, and Jeff Miller, who Republican sources say could potentially jump in. Then there is former Rep. Allen West, who threatened to mount a primary challenge to Rubio last year, though few Florida political operatives expect Rubio to face much trouble from within the party.
No Republican has said they would run in the event Rubio vies for the presidency. If he does launch a national campaign, Florida Republicans are downplaying the possibility of a vicious primary for Rubio's seat.
"I don’t see any of our high profile Republicans running against each other, mainly because there are so many other great options for all them to do that they would not put all their eggs in one basket," Florida Republican consultant Sarah Bascom said.
Those other options are in 2018 and include the races for state offices and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson's seat. In 2016, both parties face the possibility of “wildcard self-funders” who could shake up the Senate race, Democratic consultant Ana Cruz said.
If Rubio does run for re-election, Bush’s potential presidential candidacy could be a boon, helping turn out Florida Republicans in force. But operatives said the former governor would also cast a long shadow — Rubio would be competing with the popular Bush for the resources, attention and political energy of the state's political class.
Still, sources said, it would be easier than taking on Bush.
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