Why Rubio remains the favorite for reelection against Demings

Democrats have been saying “woulda, coulda, shoulda” a lot in recent Florida races

Florida Democrat Val B. Demings brings plenty of assets to her Senate challenge to Republican incumbent Marco Rubio, but the state’s partisan tilt cannot be ignored, Rothenberg writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Florida Democrat Val B. Demings brings plenty of assets to her Senate challenge to Republican incumbent Marco Rubio, but the state’s partisan tilt cannot be ignored, Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photos)
Posted July 20, 2021 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS — Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden almost carried Florida in 2020. Hillary Clinton almost won it four years earlier. 

Democrats also almost won the state’s 2018 Senate contest, as well as the 2018, 2014 and 2010 races for governor.  

Detect a pattern yet?

At some point, it should be clear that as politically competitive as the Sunshine State is, Republicans start off with a narrow but consistent advantage — and that advantage is difficult for Democrats to overcome. 

So, while Democratic Senate hopeful Rep. Val B. Demings has an interesting background, will raise tons of money and should be a quality challenger to Republican incumbent Marco Rubio, she starts off in a deeper hole than you might think. 

Not your grandfather’s Florida

Once upon a time, Florida, the third state to secede from the Union in 1861 (after South Carolina and Mississippi), was reliably Democratic. 

Democrats won every election for governor from 1876 to 1964, except for 1916 when Prohibition Party nominee Sidney Johnston Catts won a single term. In 1966, Claude R. Kirk Jr. was the first Republican elected governor since Reconstruction. 

Recent electoral results show how much things have changed. The last Democrat elected governor of Florida was Lawton Chiles, in 1990 and 1994. Since then, Republicans have won six straight elections for the state’s top job: Jeb Bush in 1998 and 2002, Charlie Crist in 2006, Rick Scott in 2010 and 2014, and Ron DeSantis in 2018.

The same trend can be seen in Senate elections.  

After Reconstruction, the first Republican elected to the Senate from Florida was Edward J. Gurney in 1968. While Democrats continued to win Senate races from 1974 to 2012 (Chiles, Richard Stone, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson), GOP Senate victories by Paula Hawkins in 1980, Connie Mack III in 1988 and 1994, Rubio in 2010 and 2016, and Scott in 2018 document the state’s partisan evolution. 

In presidential politics, Barack Obama carried the state twice — by almost 3 points in 2008 and by a single point four years later. But Florida has voted Republican in eight of the last 12 presidential elections, including for two GOP incumbents who were denied a second term nationally, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump. 

Advantage Rubio

In facing the voters next year, Rubio starts off with some considerable advantages, including his willingness to say or do anything to win election. (The senator started his 2016 presidential run as an unapologetic critic of Donald Trump but quickly turned into a lap dog for him.)

After serving in the state Legislature (including two years as speaker of the Florida House), Rubio won two Senate elections in Florida, in 2010 and in 2016. Neither race was a squeaker. 

He had an easy 19-point victory in a three-way race in 2010 when the opposition was split, and six years later, he defeated Rep. Patrick Murphy, who ran as a moderate Democrat, by almost 8 points, 52 percent to 44 percent. (Murphy had previously been a Republican and a Mitt Romney donor.)

In that 2016 race, Rubio won 58 of the state’s 67 counties, while Murphy won only nine. That’s not unusual, of course, since Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade, along with Leon and Gadsden (Tallahassee), Alachua (Gainesville), and Orange and Osceola (Orlando), have constituted the core Democratic vote in recent years.

Trump carried the state twice, but with only 49 percent in 2016 and 51 percent in 2020. 

Four years after Murphy carried nine counties, Biden carried 12, adding narrow wins in Duval (Jacksonville), Seminole (metropolitan Orlando), Hillsborough and Pinellas (Tampa and St. Petersburg) while losing St. Lucie, which Murphy had carried, narrowly.

But those relatively small changes did not alter the state’s overall performance, suggesting that the partisan division in the state is stable and that, like the rest of the country, Floridians have made up their minds about the two parties. At least for now.

The Democrats

Demings, 64, is likely to be the Democrats’ challenger against Rubio.

The former Orlando police officer became chief of police in 2007, a potential asset at a time when Republicans nationally are running against Democrats for allegedly being weak on crime and wanting to “defund the police.”

In 2011, after 27 years with the Orlando Police Department, Demings retired. Her husband, Jerry Demings, was elected mayor of Orange County, the fifth most populous county in the state, in 2018.

Val Demings was a much-ballyhooed Democratic candidate for Congress against Republican Rep. Daniel Webster in 2012, but she lost that race narrowly, 52 percent to 48 percent. She won a court-ordered redrawn seat in 2016. (If you’d like to see what I wrote about Demings after interviewing her almost 10 years ago, click here.)

Demings was reportedly on Biden’s short list for a running mate. But her two terms in the House hardly prepared her for a presidential race, let alone the presidency, so it is difficult to take those rumors too seriously.

Demings took in $4.6 million in her first quarter of fundraising for her Senate bid. Money shouldn’t be a problem for her — or Rubio. Florida is the third-most populous state, and it could determine control of the Senate, so state and national campaign contributors will be eager to spend money in the state. 

Demings should have appeal among core Democratic constituencies, but she may have to deal with some softening of support among Cuban American voters in South Florida. 

Florida’s 2012 presidential exit poll found Obama squeezing out a 49 percent to 47 percent win over Romney among those respondents who identified as Cuban.

But in 2020, Trump carried Florida voters of Cuban descent, 56 percent to 42 percent, suggesting that Republicans were making progress defining Democrats (and Biden) as too sympathetic to socialism.

Bottom line

Demings has plenty of assets as a challenger, and Florida remains narrowly divided between the two parties. But the state isn’t a toss-up, nor is this race.

The midterm dynamic should benefit Rubio, and it’s hard to see Demings making dramatic inroads among voters who supported Trump last year. The challenger will likely need to run a flawless race and take advantage of a Rubio stumble or two. 

Strong Black turnout will be crucial for Demings, as will continuing support from younger voters and non-Cuban Hispanics. She will also need to grow her support in the state’s metropolitan (especially suburban) areas, where Democrats showed strength in 2018 and 2020. She cannot afford additional defections from Hispanic voters.

Rubio starts the race with a clear advantage, but Florida is always a state worth watching, and 2022 is no exception.

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