Word has doubtless reached most of you that Florida U.S. Senator Marco Rubio has decided to run for re-election to his Senate seat. This has caused all the candidates in the Republican Senate primary race to bail out, save Carlos Beruff, a Manatee County (Bradenton) builder who has never held elective office and is running as Trump lite. (There seems to be a bumper crop of “non-politicians” this cycle seeking political offices, which if they win said offices, would make them politicians.)
Former Senate seekers Ron DeSantis and David Jolly are both now running for re-election to their U.S. House seats, conservative DeSantis in Jacksonville, moderate-to-liberal Jolly in St. Petersburg. Both of these congressional districts have been made more Democratic in the latest redrawing of district lines, but both men are strong candidates with some cross-party appeal. Jolly has the added advantage of running against the lighter-than-air Charlie Crist (yes, that Charlie Crist, the perennial political recidivist). Orlando area businessman and former member of Army Special Forces Todd Wilcox dropped out of the race and endorsed Rubio, as has Rubio’s friend and current Florida lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
Rubio is probably the favorite in the race now, both in the primary and in the general. Beruff is not well known, though he has made a packet building homes and is not reluctant to spend his own money in the millions on TV ads, which are every bit as subtle and nuanced as those of his favorite presidential candidate. The Two Democrats seeking the Senate show every indication of being weak candidates. But even with these advantages it will hardly be a walk for the incumbent.
Rubio has name recognition and a solid record in the Senate. But in this throw-the-bums-out year, these are not the advantages they normally would be. His opponents will use Rubio’s remarks about how much he didn’t like the Senate, the many times he said he would be a private citizen in January, and his many missed votes while running for President against him. He will also be dinged in the primary race for his 2013 vote for the We-Don’t-Need-No-Stinking-Borders Act put up by the Senate’s Gang of Eight (aka Jeff and the other seven flakes), even though Rubio long ago moved away from his 2013 position on immigration.
Finally, in the disadvantage Rubio column, there’s the melancholy fact, melancholy at least for conservatives, that the not-so-long-ago red Florida is now bright purple, tending ever so slowly to blue. It’s turning blueish mostly thanks to the influence of the growing number of registered GenX and millennial voters. About half of Florida voters are now under 50, which many readers will find counterintuitive. There’s more in Florida now than heat, humidity, and varicose veins.
Most who follow such matters thought Rubio would stick to his pledge not to run for the Senate again. They saw him spending some time in the private sector, making money and burnishing his non-Senate presidential résumé for another run at 1600 in 2020 or 2024. But Rubio got a lot of pressure from national Republicans to run for re-election to the Senate, because they feared, with good reason, that the Republican field of Senate candidates sans Rubio was weak. Democrats need only net four Senate seats to take control of the body that confirms or rejects federal judges. Thus the more-than-usual importance of holding on to the Florida Senate seat.
If Mz Hillary is at 1600 after January, “the Senate is where we stop her,” Rubio said. And if it’s the Donald, “we’ve got to hold him accountable too.”
In 2010, Rubio was barely known outside of his Florida Statehouse district, but managed to defeat a sitting Florida Governor, the aforementioned Crist, for the Senate seat he now holds. It was almost impossible during that campaign to read a sentence in a Florida newspaper containing the words Marco Rubio that did not also contain the words tea party. Rubio was styled the candidate of the tea party, then at the peak of its influence, though his appeal was far broader. No one wins a U.S. Senate seat by 20 points, as Rubio did, with only the tea party in his corner. Now the tea party has practically dropped from view and Rubio is considered, fairly or not, an establishment candidate. This in a year when the word establishment (a vague concept at best) is a bigger political liability than it has ever been.
Candidate Beruff, who like Rubio is the son of Cuban immigrants, has already spent more than $3 million on TV ads. Their uncomplicated message is that all political incumbents are incompetent, self-serving lowlifes, whereas he, Beruff, an outsider, is competent and pure and will clean out the stables in Washington if elected. This is hardly a new political message, but one that resonates this year more than in previous election cycles.
In a Republican primary this year, this message, in a state where Donald Trump ran off with the presidential primary by 22 points over the second-place finisher (which wasn’t even Rubio — who came in third), this message may be enough. We’ll know August 30, primary day. If Beruff carries primary day as the sub-tropical Trump, Rubio’s political career, so promising so recently, would be in a parlous state, in need of a major re-set to continue.
Beruff would likely have a tougher time in the general than Rubio, who is articulate, can talk knowledgeably on many subjects of national concern, and can turn on the charm when he wants to. He even has a sense of humor. The campaigning Beruff, on the other hand, is a blunt instrument. His message has yet to expand beyond claiming that everyone currently in public office is a villain. In his ads, he has all the screen appeal of a migraine. In a normal political year a candidate like Beruff could be dismissed. But 2016 is anything but a normal political year. It could in fact be the Year of the Migraine.