Senate Primary Battles to Watch: Florida

Capitol Building

While most of the nation remains focused on the Presidential primary season and the media frenzy surrounding Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, much less attention has been paid to the other half of the US lawmaking process – Congress. Republicans currently control both houses, and while the House of Representatives appears unlikely to flip, the Senate is an entirely different story.

Democrats need a net gain of five seats to take control of the Senate, and only have the two vulnerable states of Nevada and Colorado to defend. Senate Republicans, on the other hand, have 24 seats up for election in 2016, seven of them in states that President Obama won twice. One of those is the battleground state of Florida, where two of the most consequential and interesting Senate primaries in the nation are heating up.

Any Democratic hope of taking back the Senate in 2016 runs right through Florida. Incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio has vowed not to seek re-election for his seat, even if he loses his bid for the Republican Presidential nomination, forcing a Republican primary fight that looks to be far more complex than the standard “establishment” vs. Tea Party battle. The Democratic primary appears likely to be just as brutal.

With a little under a year to go until the Republican primary, the field has just started to take shape, with three declared candidates and several others still considering a run. First to announce was Congressman Ron DeSantis, whose northeast Florida district includes the cities of St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. DeSantis has already staked out his position as the top Tea Party affiliated candidate in the race, earning the endorsements of the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, and capitalizing on those with a massive fundraising haul of just under $2 million in the last quarter.

Opposing him in the primary is Rep. David Jolly, who represents the 13th District in the Tampa Bay area. The first-term Congressman is best known for his 2014 special election win to replace the deceased Rep. Bill Young, a race that remains one of the most expensive House elections of all time, with more than $11 million spent. Jolly clearly tends toward the moderate end of the Republican ideological spectrum, criticizing Tea Party-backed government shutdowns, and openly backing same-sex marriage.

Rounding out the field of declared candidates is Florida Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera. In office since 2014, López-Cantera boasts a legitimate power base in vote-rich Miami-Dade County, strong connections to the influential Cuban-American community, and a close personal friendship with the man he is seeking to replace, Sen. Marco Rubio.

Additionally, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who surprised many earlier this year by declining to enter the race, is apparently reconsidering his choice not to run. If Atwater does enter the race, his strong name ID and considerable fundraising connections might make him the immediate favorite. Former state Attorney General Bill McCollum has also contemplated a candidacy and, if he runs, would be a serious contender.

All the current candidates are fairly unknown to voters, and while the most recent polling gives Jolly a slight lead, the race remains wide open, and is likely to be expensive and brutal. All candidates look to be well funded, and any number of variables could combine to determine the nominee. Atwater might still enter the race and try to clear the field. 2016 might turn out to be a Tea Party wave year like 2010 was, leading to a DeSantis win. Or there might be an establishment backlash, helping Jolly. A Marco Rubio endorsement could push López-Cantera to a win. Rubio himself could even change his mind and run for a second term. The fact that so much is unsure in such an important race is surprising, and is a key reason why this primary is shaping up to be one of the most interesting in the nation.

In marked contrast to the uncertainty of the Republican race, the Democratic primary field is all but set. Most national Democratic groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), are backing Congressman Patrick Murphy, a moderate former Republican who they view as having the best chance to take back the seat. Murphy has twice been elected in a Republican-leaning district in southeast Florida, and his electoral history and centrist positions make him a top-tier recruit for the DSCC. He is challenged by liberal firebrand and outspoken Congressman Alan Grayson, who brushed off the pleas of prominent Democratic leaders not to run.

Grayson, who represents a district in central Florida, is well known for his impassioned rhetoric and combative style, and his expletive filled rants and profane personal attacks are the stuff of Capitol Hill legend. From calling a Federal Reserve employee “a K Street whore” to disparaging his Republican opponent as a member of the Taliban, to screaming profanities at journalists, Grayson has a long history of controversy.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Grayson has become a darling of the far left wing of his party. His takedown of GOP health care proposals in the debate on the Affordable Care Act made him an instant progressive hero, and his fierce anti-Republican rhetoric has since reinforced it. Establishment groups, however, worry his entry into the race could be the worst case scenario for Democrats, fearing that his penchant for controversy and extremely liberal beliefs will toss away an otherwise winnable Senate seat in a battleground state.

Early polling is notoriously inaccurate, but the most recent surveys suggest Murphy and the DSCC have a serious problem on their hands. Due to his considerable level of support from national Democratic groups, Murphy remains the favorite, but in a year when Bernie Sanders is a serious challenger for the Presidential nomination, a left-wing fueled Grayson upset appears increasingly possible.

In a state as diverse and as complex as Florida, state-wide races are unpredictable, which is part of what makes these two primaries so intriguing. This time in the 2010 cycle, Governor Charlie Crist was widely expected to be the Republican nominee, but instead ended up dropping out of the Republican party and running as an independent, before losing to Marco Rubio by 20 percent. Even if this year’s contests fail to meet the bizarre level of that one, expect two long and vicious fights before either party can even begin to think about winning the general election.

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