Like presidential nomination fight, it's outsider vs. insider in Fla. Senate race

By Ledyard King | USATODAY
Posted August 6, 2016

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference about the Zika virus on Aug. 3, 2016, in Doral, Fla.(Photo: Lynne Sladky, AP)
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks during a news conference about the Zika virus on Aug. 3, 2016, in Doral, Fla.(Photo: Lynne Sladky, AP)

WASHINGTON — If you liked the drama of this year's presidential nomination battles, check out Florida’s Senate race.

The state's Aug. 30 Republican and Democratic Senate primaries share some of the story line and sharp edges that played out across the country during the the outsider-vs.-establishment races for the parties' presidential tickets.

On the GOP side, Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff is playing the the role of outsider Donald Trump in challenging Sen. Marco Rubio for that party's nomination. On the Democratic side, Rep. Alan Grayson is channeling iconoclast Sen. Bernie Sanders in his primary race against Rep. Patrick Murphy, who has been endorsed by President Obama.

Beruff, a self-funding millionaire real-estate mogul like Trump, has unrelentingly attacked Rubio for his chronic absence from the Senate during his presidential campaign, for his past support of immigration reform, and for his past criticisms of Trump.

Grayson, an unapologetic liberal firebrand like Sanders, has slammed Murphy, a centrist, for inflating his résumé, for asking state officials to delay an announcement about the opening of a center to assist businesses affected by a toxic algae bloom, and for voting with Republicans on key issues.

The stakes are high. Florida is considered one of a handful of states that will determine control of the Senate, now held by Republicans.

Just several weeks ago, the Senate race was assumed to be an open-seat contest.

Rubio, who rode a Tea Party wave into office in 2010, had pledged to forgo re-election while he concentrated on a presidential bid. But after losing Florida's presidential primary to Trump on March 15, he changed his mind. On June 22, two days before the filing deadline, he declared for a second term.

That decision followed determined lobbying by Republican leaders to persuade Rubio to reconsider his pledge not to run. They told him he represented the best shot at keeping the Senate seat — and possibly the Senate itself — in GOP hands. His re-entry, and subsequent polls showing him dominating the GOP field, prompted several Republicans to exit the race, leaving Beruff as the only major obstacle left to deny Rubio the nomination.

Beruff has called Rubio a “liar” and a “no-show,” among other insults. He’s also derided him as a “status quo” candidate, ironic given that Rubio was the anti-establishment candidate when he beat then-governor Charlie Crist for the Senate seat six years ago.

Beruff, who has echoed Trump’s call for a broad immigration crackdown, also has said he won’t endorse Rubio in November if he loses to the senator.

“I can’t support a person who doesn’t stand for anything,” he said when he attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last month.

Rubio hasn’t spent much energy responding to Beruff. Instead, he seems to be making up for the months of time he spent away from Florida and Washington while he ran for president.

Rubio missed dozens of floor votes and a number of committee hearings and intelligence briefings while he campaigned for the White House. He said he was frustrated with the Senate’s pace and inability to move quickly on issues. At one point during the campaign, he told CNN many of the missed votes “won't mean anything.”

Since his return to Capitol Hill, Rubio has engaged on myriad issues. He has called out his own party for not moving fast enough on Zika relief and vowed to reclaim a $400 million “ransom” payment the Obama administration made to Iran.

And, trying to counter a perception he cares little about issues that don’t affect South Florida, Rubio has been traipsing across the state to meet with local constituents on a host of issues, including moldy courthouses, algae blooms and slumlords.

Beruff dismisses Rubio as an establishment pawn positioning himself for a 2020 presidential run. But polls indicate most Florida Republicans are poised to re-nominate Rubio.

It’s gotten even nastier on the Democratic side.

Grayson, who represents the Orlando area, has heaped scorn on Murphy, a former Republican who switched parties after becoming disillusioned with the GOP’s direction in recent years. Grayson has called Murphy a GOP “sock puppet” and tool of the Democratic establishment.

In this April 25, 2016, file photo, Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla. answers a question in a Senate debate in Orlando, Fla. (Photo: John Raoux, AP)He has taken aim at Murphy’s voting record, which is among the most moderate for a House Democrat and has allowed Murphy to win re-election in a GOP-leaning Treasure Coast district. Grayson lambasted Murphy for siding with the GOP to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, increase the vetting of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S., and create the special committee that investigated the 2012 Benghazi attacks.

In June, Grayson’s camp called Murphy “dishonest” after a Miami television report raised questions about the Jupiter congressman’s résumé and work history as a small-business man and certified public accountant. Murphy campaign manager Josh Wolf issued a point-by-point rebuttal, calling the report “deeply false.”

In mid-July, Grayson aides called for an investigation after emails were published showing that Murphy’s office had asked state officials to delay announcing the opening of a center to help small businesses affected by a toxic algae bloom in his district.

Murphy’s campaign said he merely wanted to unveil the program himself at a news conference the following day that focused on the environmental disaster.

In this Oct. 14, 2015, file photo, Rep. Patrick Murphy speaks during a news conference in Tallahassee, Fla. (Photo: Steve Cannon, AP)
In this Oct. 14, 2015, file photo, Rep. Patrick Murphy speaks during a news conference in Tallahassee, Fla. (Photo: Steve Cannon, AP)

Grayson has had to do some explaining of his own.

His acid tongue and confrontational manner have repelled Democrats and Republicans alike.

In 2009, he drew national criticism for saying, during debate on the Affordable Care Act, that Republicans “want you to die quickly if you get sick.”

He faces a House Ethics Committee probe over allegations that he violated House rules by operating hedge funds that bore his name, using his congressional office to support both the hedge funds and his Senate race, and failing to disclose income and assets on his annual financial disclosure forms.

Grayson's Senate campaign has called the allegations “politically motivated (and) utterly frivolous.”

During a congressional meeting In May, news reports publicized a sharp exchange between Grayson and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, a Murphy backer who recommended Grayson get out of the race over the ethics flap.

More recently, Grayson has had to deal with fallout from a Politico story detailing allegations that he physically abused his first wife, Lolita. Grayson’s lawyer, Mark NeJame, condemned the allegations as “discredited and utterly false.”

But the report prompted at least two progressive groups to pull their endorsements of the liberal congressman. And it prompted Murphy to bow out of the one planned TV debate with Grayson, saying Grayson’s "continued presence in this race is an insult to the countless Floridians whose lives have been affected by this kind of violence."

A Suffolk University poll suggests it won’t really matter which Democrat emerges to face Rubio.

The incumbent holds double-digit leads over both Democrats in hypothetical general-election match-ups. And there’s a prevailing sense among analysts that momentum is on Rubio’s side.

But Rubio lost the presidential primary to Trump by nearly 19 percentage points. And presidential elections tend to fire up the constituencies that favor Democrats. Florida also is notorious for hosting closely contested federal races, no matter who has the advantage.

Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the non-partisan Rothenberg and Gonzales Political Report, expects any edge Rubio enjoys will be softened by Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket.

“Rubio’s decision to run for re-election gives Republicans a better chance to hold Florida,” he said. “But Rubio is still a Republican senator seeking re-election in a competitive presidential state where Donald Trump could be an anvil around his neck.”

Source: USA TODAY