GOP leaders’ surprise move to draft Marco Rubio into the race for his Florida Senate seat has frozen the campaign in the state, throwing into jeopardy a seat the party desperately needs to maintain control of the Senate.
The Republican campaigns already running for Rubio’s seat complain that the improbable move to lure the senator into the race has paralyzed donors during a crucial stretch of the electoral calendar. And it doesn’t help, they say, that leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are proclaiming that only Rubio can win in November, essentially warning donors not to waste their money — or that outside groups, including Senate Leadership Fund and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have indicated they might sit Florida out unless the sitting senator is on the ballot. Meanwhile, Democratic groups are lining up to pour money behind their favored candidate, Rep. Patrick Murphy, who they believe has the chops to beat anyone the GOP puts forward, even Rubio.
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In essence, the Beltway chatter surrounding Rubio has created the impression that the five current GOP candidates — Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Reps. Ron DeSantis and David Jolly, and businessmen Carlos Beruff and Todd Wilcox — are dead men walking five months before Election Day in a closely divided, critical piece of Republicans’ 54-seat Senate majority.
Republicans asking Rubio to run “are basically the high school boy who’s asking the homecoming queen to prom, except she already has a date and they’re going to be left with no one to dance with,” said an operative working for one of the Republican campaigns in Florida. “Once the dust settles on their dreaming, it’s going to be one of these candidates on the ballot.”
Wilcox said the Rubio draft movement runs counter to the spirit of Republican voters who have propelled Donald Trump’s unconventional presidential campaign.
“There’s a movement under way, and it’s fueled by people tired of career politicians,” said Wilcox, a CIA and Army veteran. “If we can’t contrast Patrick Murphy with anything more than another career politician, we’re going to lose that seat.”
Besides, Rubio has repeatedly and firmly said he has no plans to run again for the Senate seat he left open for his unsuccessful White House bid.
But the Republican senators and operatives who want Rubio to run say the five current GOP Senate campaigns have failed to become well known throughout Florida, which is split among 10 expensive media markets. No candidate appears on the way to raising the tens of millions needed to fund television ads for either the state’s late August primary or the two-month general election sprint.
In other words, the existing candidates have failed thus far to clear a high bar — one that may now be getting harder to reach because of the Rubio hoopla.
“I don’t think these are bad candidates,” said Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff who has been a vocal Rubio-for-Senate booster. “There’s a combination of things that makes it difficult for any first-time Senate candidate.”
“This is a very sober analysis of the race,” Holmes added. If Rubio jumps in, he said, “Republicans have a very good chance to keep the seat. The other scenario offers a 50-50 shot at best.”
Holmes isn’t alone in his assessment. High-profile Republicans, led by McConnell, have personally lobbied Rubio to run. Even Trump, who delighted in beating “Little Marco” in Florida’s presidential primary, sent out a message of encouragement on Twitter.
“I and my colleagues have been trying to convince Sen. Marco Rubio to run again in Florida,” McConnell said this week on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show. “We’re all hoping that he’ll reconsider, because poll data indicates that he is the one who can win for us.”
In some ways, the party’s paralysis traces back to Rubio’s rise. His tea party-fueled 2010 Senate campaign swept then-Gov. Charlie Crist out of the Republican Party, about a year after the National Republican Senatorial Committee anointed Crist as its candidate for the open seat. Since 2010, the Senate committee has stayed out of open primaries, eager to avoid further conflict with the grassroots (and further embarrassing losses).
The “Draft Rubio” efforts are “a Washington decree, just like Charlie Crist was in 2010, and look how that turned out,” a Republican consultant with Florida ties said.
But without the NRSC directing donors to a favored candidate, none of the prospective Rubio replacements has been able to raise the resources to run a viable Florida campaign. It has practically become a self-fulfilling prophecy now, and the message to donors that the candidates don’t have a chance is further hampering their fundraising.
Rubio has existing name ID and easy access to financial resources — plus, as an incumbent, he would get the NRSC’s automatic aid.
Florida’s size and battleground status means candidates will need to spend roughly $5 million or more per week during the stretch run. Right now, none of the candidates running has more money than Rubio, who still had $3.3 million in his federal campaign account at the end of April — plus another $1.8 million in the super PAC that backed his White House bid.
But the campaigns’ operatives say the Rubio float undermines the current candidates at a critical time. Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential bids had already sapped Florida Republican donors’ time and energy from the Senate race. By the time the late-June filing deadline firmly eliminates any chance of a Rubio run, the primary will be looming just two months away, leaving less time for fundraising.
And then, the candidates will have to combat the new perception that they may not be worth donors’ dollars in the first place.
“All of a sudden, everyone is paralyzed again waiting to see what Rubio does. All you’re doing is hurting the GOP campaigns,” the operative said. “We have to sit on our hands for a month while Patrick Murphy raises money with the president.”
The two best-funded current candidates are Beruff and DeSantis. Beruff, a self-funder, has already spent $3 million introducing himself to voters with English and Spanish-language TV ads.
That cash has propelled him to a small advantage in public primary polling, though huge numbers of voters still remain undecided.
DeSantis has led the pack in raising cash, and he had $3.2 million banked at the beginning of April. A super PAC backing him has another $1.1 million, after raking in donations from prominent GOP donors like Robert Mercer. DeSantis also has the backing of the Club for Growth — at least for now.
The Club this week didn’t explicitly rule out backing Rubio if he entered the contest. The group initially endorsed Rubio for Senate reelection, before he ran for president.
“The Club’s PAC is proud of its role in getting both to Congress, but we’re not in the business of speculating about Sen. Rubio’s future,” spokesman Doug Sachtleben said.
The rest of the GOP outside-money world is leaving no doubt. Senate Leadership Fund, the Senate-focused super PAC founded by Steven Law, another former chief of staff to McConnell, has already declared that only Rubio’s entry would make it likely to spend on Florida’s Senate race.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce told POLITICO it would also open its checkbook under those circumstances. It’s unclear if the other candidates would receive the same support.
“Sen. Rubio is a proven leader and a champion for American free enterprise,” said Rob Engstrom, the Chamber’s national political director. “He has an important voice, at a critical time in our nation’s history. Should he run for reelection, we are 100 percent supportive, and all in.”
Meanwhile, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already reserved $10 million in Florida TV airtime for the fall, while Senate Democrats’ flagship super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, is planning to spend another $10.5 million.
The NRSC left Florida out of its initial ad buy, and it’s unclear if the GOP Senate committee has any plans to spend in the expensive state.
Meanwhile, Democrats are confident in Murphy, whom the DSCC endorsed last year. He has to navigate a potentially tricky primary with outspoken progressive Rep. Alan Grayson, but Republicans have already identified him as their chief worry, unleashing an early torrent of attacks portraying the 32-year-old Murphy as a spoiled rich kid who lied on his resume.
But Murphy has cultivated a centrist, business-friendly profile in Congress, and he already has more than $5 million socked away for the campaign. Senate Democrats believe he would run well even against Rubio, pointing to private polling from February 2015 — before Rubio’s presidential run — that showed Murphy leading the senator after respondents heard a script of positive and negative information about both of them.
One of the Murphy campaign’s biggest backers, Democratic donor and trial lawyer John Morgan, was bullish on the congressman’s chances against Rubio, arguing the incumbent has alienated Bush supporters and Rubio’s presidential ambitions have turned off Florida voters. Morgan also predicted a “fundraising bonanza” for Murphy if Rubio entered the contest. Murphy’s campaign is already raising money off the prospect online, sending an email to supporters Friday, titled “What do you think — will Rubio run?”
“It would be the gift that keeps on giving,” Morgan said. “The spigots would be turned on full blast for Patrick Murphy.”
But the Republicans in the contest believe Murphy is beatable. The Democrat is still largely undefined in Florida, too.
“They are vastly overrating Patrick Murphy,” said another operative working on the race. “The idea that you need an incumbent with 100 percent name ID to beat Patrick Murphy is just wrong.”
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