Republican prospects of defending the party’s Senate majority, now four seats but with many more Republicans than Democrats up for election this year, are getting a bit more dicey as the Florida Senate race tightens. Thought recently to be a sure Republican winner, the seat now appears to be in play.
Just two weeks ago, polls were showing incumbent Marco Rubio ahead of Democrat challenger, Congressman Patrick Murphy, by five to eight points. Rubio’s lead appeared solid enough that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee canceled some ad buys for Murphy, choosing to spend its money on races considered more winnable. While Republicans had other Senate races to worry about, Florida seemed secure. Rubio is a solid, articulate candidate and a skilled campaigner. Murphy on the other hand is young, 33, has no accomplishments in the public or private sector to point to, is less than charismatic on the stump, and has a recently disclosed habit of exaggerating his credentials and background. So what’s for Republicans to worry about?
Well, they can start worrying now. If the two most recent polls (taken 10/20 and 10/21) are accurate, the race is suddenly within the margin of error. One poll shows Rubio with a two-point edge; the other shows a tie.
So what happened to account for this recent movement?
Hard to say. There have been no spectacular developments in either campaign. And the Senate campaign itself has been overshadowed by the much-covered presidential mud-wrestle. There was a recent televised debate between the two, which was likely watched by a few dozen shut-ins and a handful of political nerds. Both campaigns, and groups supporting the two candidates, are running the standard political ads portraying the other guy as an incompetent, dodgy, low-life wretch, unsuitable for polite company, let alone public office. So the ad war is probably a wash. (Does anyone pay any attention to these ads anymore?) Recent newspaper endorsements have broken heavily for Murphy. But then Democrats always win the newspaper endorsement wars, and the days when voters made their choices on the basis of newspaper endorsement are long gone.
The only thing that might explain loss of support for Rubio is the pounding Donald Trump has taken in the mainstream media over the past two weeks. Rubio has the same problem all Republican candidates have this cycle with a pinless hand grenade at the top of the ticket. When the Donald says something that a significant fraction of voters consider outrageous, but another large fraction considers gospel, Republican candidate lose votes no matter how they relate to the guy at the top. Support him and lose voters. Deny him and lose other voters. Give evasive answers on whether or not you support him and lose other voters still.
Rubio has finessed the Trump dilemma about as well as any Republican candidate. He has said he supports Trump, will vote for him, but disagrees with him on many issues and has no plans to campaign with him. Rubio has not backed away from the harsh things he said about Trump during the presidential primaries, when he called Trump a con-man and some other unsavory things. Now he says he will vote for Trump, his differences with him notwithstanding, because Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are wrong about everything and are a threat to the republic. He tries to keep his comments on his own race and stresses the need of a strong Republican Senate to act as watchdog against whoever ends up at 1600, especially against a Democrat president with Supreme Court nominees to name. But Trump is at the top of Rubio’s ticket, and political damage has a way of rolling downhill.
While one recent poll shows the presidential race in Florida a dead heat, all the others show Clinton ahead by three to five points. A five-point or wider win in Florida for Clinton could take Rubio with her. To win, Rubio is relying on a good deal of ticket-splitting across the state. With the blessed relief of Nov. 9, we’ll know how much ticket-splitting there was. (On this date we can also start answering our telephones again. It’s a good thing my wife is following this race and knows the players. Otherwise I might have to explain why this woman named Ivanka is calling me four times a day.)
This election will also provide a clue to any ideological shift in the Florida electorate. To the extent issues have been prominent in the campaign and in the two men’s House and Senate votes, Rubio is an orthodox conservative while Murphy is a standard-issue liberal. Rubio holds a Senate seat on the basis of a resounding win in a three-way race in 2010. He won that seat at least partly on the basis of a coherent and well-articulated conservative platform. Florida was a red state then. But there have been demographic changes over the past six years. More millennials, more Hispanics, whose voting preferences tend to tack left (and, as Rubio knows, a Spanish last name is no guarantee of success among Hispanic voters). Is an articulate, orthodox conservative senator what a majority of Florida voters fancy in the fall of 2016? Or would they prefer an apprentice Charlie Crist? We’ll know soon.