Published on June 24, 2016
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This week, Florida Senator Marco Rubio yielded to the pleas of months of entreaties from colleagues, former rivals and fellow Republicans by agreeing to stand for re-election to his Senate seat. While no one could predict what Rubio would ultimately do leading up to the announcement, few on either were ultimately surprised. Still, because he did leave people guessing until the 11th hour – Florida’s filing deadline is today – GOP candidates for many offices from both the contest to succeed him and the contest to succeed them, were left scrambling to drop down and file for their old posts.
The main story is Rubio opting to stay put and many are confident that his decision will leave the Senate seat in Republican hands. It certainly gives them a boost. But it’s hardly that simple.
To say that Republicans were underwhelmed at the prospect for holding the seat without Rubio was an understatement. None of his would-be successors set the world on fire and they openly worried that the Democrat in the strongest position to win the primary, South Florida Congressman Patrick Murphy, would snatch the seat in November, thereby further jeopardizing their already precarious 54-46 majority. Let’s look at the lay of the land with Rubio’s return.
First, it’s worth noting that Rubio will likely still face a primary. While most of the heavyweight Republicans running to replace Rubio have deferred to him, businessman Carlos Beruff has said he will do no such thing and in fact received vocal encouragement from the “Sunshine” State’s very conservative Republican Governor, Rick Scott. In fact, Beruff, has said he will spend as much as it takes to deny Rubio re-nomination. But Beruff is not Rubio’s biggest problem. He should prevail in the primary easily though is still likely to see a sizable protest vote, both from lingering resentment over his absenteeism and from ardent Trump supporters who handed him an embarrassingly lopsided defeat in his home state’s primary because his brand wasn’t sufficiently supportive of their platform. With Beruff being compared to Trump – both as far as money and verbal audaciousness, much of that same discontent is likely to be present in the primary. But it’s almost safe for him to look ahead to November. And that means more than a few Achilles Heels.
One is his absenteeism. It is not uncommon for Presidential candidates to miss many votes while seeking their party’s nomination but, fairly or not, Rubio was the first to take heat. <em>The Daily Beast</em> captured the perceptions by saying, “Marco Rubio’s new hobby: Florida.” Rubio said the Orlando terrorist attack motivated him to continue his public service.
It’s safe to say that more than a few voters will remember that. That’s not to say many won’t overlook it when weighing their two Senate choices but gaining their votes may mean that many will try to extract a promise that he will not run for President in 2020. This puts him in a difficult position. He is clearly ambitious and, if he comes to the conclusion that Trump will lose and the field will be wide open in 2020, he might not want to pass on that opportunity.
Another hurdle is Trump himself. The vituperativeness of the campaign made Rubio lukewarm to Trump. More importantly, so, according to polls, a majority of Floridians are as well.
Rubio is going to need many voters that Trump has offended – women, minorities, etc. But he will also need die-hard Trump supporters. If he appears with Trump, he risks offending not the swing voters or those against him but if he disses him, he angers the ardently anti-Trump voters he needs. Rubio is already trying to finesse that dilemma. He said as he announced his change of heart, “It is no secret that I have significant disagreements with Donald Trump. His positions on many key issues are still unknown. And some of his statements, especially about women and minorities, I find not just offensive but unacceptable.” But in unambiguously adding that Hillary Clinton was a non-starter, Rubio added, “If he is elected, we will need senators willing to encourage him in the right direction, and if necessary, stand up to him. I’ve proven a willingness to do both.”
Which brings us to Rubio’s own standing with his constituents. A survey conducted by Public Policy Polling less than a week ago found that just 30% of Floridians approved of his job performance as opposed to 49% who disapproved. It’s usually concerning when an incumbent’s approval is below 50% in an election year so to be the other way has to be quite dispiriting.
While one’s job approval is not always indicative of how folks will vote (issues, partisan shifts or moods of the day come into play which is why no incumbent Senator in a competitive state will drop into the 30s), there are serious hurdles he must strive to overcome. One, Florida has moved noticeably if not vastly to the left in the past decade. In fact, at the Presidential level, some Democrats are more bullish on their chances in Florida than Pennsylvania and Ohio. Further, the Hispanic percentage in key counties has risen dramatically. Osceola County (Kissimmee) is an example. In 2000, it was 29%. Today, it is 51%. Rubio is Hispanic but with emotions so high, it remains to be seen whether Latinos will consider him all talk and no cattle when it comes to immigration reform. Ammunition may be that while he was a steadfast member of the Gang of Eight early on, he backed away when his Presidential aspirations moved from just talk. On the up-side, Rubio likely will be able to count on a big showing among Cuban-Americans in South Florida.
In November, Rubio is likely to face Patrick Murphy, a two-term Congressman who has managed to nail down his very swing Port St. Lucie seat by impressive margins. Murphy is in the middle of his own public relations nightmare, brought on by a CBS4 News piece that exposed resume inflating and still must get past a primary of his own with bombastic Orlando Congressman Alan Grayson. Murphy is mounting a strong defense.
The bottom line is that with Florida unmistakably trending Democratic and the Clinton campaign determined to lure every last voter to the polls, counting anyone in and out at this point would be myopic at best.
The race is still a tossup.