TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential aspirations and insistence that he was done with the Senate didn’t hurt him with GOP voters. Now it’s time to see if the rest of Florida will be as forgiving as he seeks a second term.
Rubio easily won the Republican nomination to retain his seat and will be challenged by Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who defeated U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson in Tuesday’s Senate primary. It’s a race Democrats are targeting as they try to regain a Senate majority, hoping Rubio’s presidential ambitions have dulled his shine with Florida voters.
In other races Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown lost a primary as she faces felony fraud charges. It will end her 24-year congressional career, as former state Sen. Al Lawson is almost assured of replacing her in the heavily Democratic district.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who resigned last month as Democratic National Committee chairwoman, fended off her first serious challenge since winning office in 2004 by beating Tim Canova, a Bernie Sanders-backed law professor.
Rubio and Murphy have been giving a preview of their general election match up for weeks now, focusing on each other rather than their primary opponents.
Murphy says Rubio cares more about his political ambitions than Florida’s voters, and can’t even commit to serving all six years in the Senate if he wins. Rubio calls Murphy a wealthy man’s privileged son, who has lied about his education, work experience and starting a small business.
“He’s going to have to account for his four years in Congress, where he was ranked by a non-partisan group as one of the most ineffective members,” Rubio said after winning. “That’s a hard thing to achieve in a Congress that’s been as ineffective as this one has been over the last 10 years.”
Murphy also immediately attacked Rubio after his victory.
“Senator Rubio is trying to distract from his terrible record. Here’s a guy who has missed more votes than any senator from Florida in nearly 50 years. He told us he doesn’t like the job and just yesterday he told us he said he won’t commit to a six-year term,” Murphy said.
There is evidence that the presidential run has taken a toll on Rubio.
His approval ratings dropped from 54 percent before he announced his presidential campaign to 46 percent after he announced he’d seek a second Senate term, according to Quinnipiac University polling. His disapproval ratings rose from 35 percent to 43 percent.
Democratic party leaders felt Murphy, a former Republican, has the best chance in the general election. President Barack Obama and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid backed him in the primary, and Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Florida three times to campaign with him. Grayson, a fiery liberal who often makes headlines with brash statements, was seen as too inflammatory in a state that tends to support moderates.
But Murphy is still largely unknown outside his Florida congressional district, and Republican groups began running negative ads against him weeks ago. Until Rubio decided in June to seek another term, it was expected that Murphy’s Republican challenger would, like him, be a lesser-known candidate.
Rubio has the advantage of already having won a statewide election in a state with more than 12 million voters. Still, his chances could rely heavily on the fates of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. If Clinton wins the presidency by a large margin, it could hurt Rubio in the state Obama carried in 2008 and 2012.
Rubio has half-heartedly endorsed Trump since their bruising presidential battles. Initially he said he won’t campaign with him, but has since said it depends on his schedule. Murphy has repeatedly pointed out that Rubio now supports a man he called a conman who can’t be trusted.
Democrats hope to reduce the GOP’s 17-10 advantage in Florida’s U.S. House delegation now that court-mandated redistricting has chipped away at the advantages of some incumbents in a state with 4.4 million Republicans, 4.7 million Democrats and 2.9 million voters who aren’t registered with any party.
Florida had to rip up and redraw its congressional maps to comply with state constitutional requirements to create compact districts that don’t favor incumbents or political parties. That spurred one of the state’s most heavily contested congressional election years.
Florida will eventually send at least eight new House members to Washington. If Democrats sweep all four seats seen as competitive in November, the Republican advantage could be reduced to 14-13.
One of these seats is now held by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican who was expected to win Tuesday, but who would then have to beat former Gov. Charlie Crist, who used to be a Republican but is now a Democrat.
Associated Press writers Terry Spencer in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and Mike Schneider in Kissimmee, Florida, contributed to this report.