Politics & Policy

Is the GOP Doomed to Lose Marco Rubio’s Senate Seat?

For the Florida GOP, replacing the 2016 contender won't be easy – or cheap

Electing a Republican to Marco Rubio’s Senate seat — quite possibly going to be left empty as the senator runs for president in 2016 – is not Mission: Impossible for the Florida GOP. Just Mission: Extremely Difficult.

Rubio has made clear that if he runs for president, he won’t also run for reelection to the Senate. All signs point to a Rubio bid for the White House, meaning the Sunshine State can expect an open-seat race.

Look at the state from the perspective of an aspiring GOP senator. Florida has ten media markets, most of them expensive, including the 13th-largest in the nation (Tampa-St. Petersburg), the 16th (Miami-Fort Lauderdale), the 19th (Orlando-Daytona Beach), the 38th (West Palm Beach) and the 49th (Jacksonville). Each of those markets is home to at least nine television stations and network affiliates.

An aspiring senator has to raise enough money to get television ads up on the air in most or all of those markets, because there simply aren’t enough hours in a day to outpace the opposition through events and personal appearances alone. The primary will probably have more than a million voters. (More than 1.1 million Republicans voted in the GOP primary in 2012.) Florida is also more geographically vast than it seems — it takes about seven hours to drive from Miami to Tallahassee.

Raising the money to meet these organizational challenges won’t be easy. The GOP donor class, of course, will be focused primarily on the presidential race, and Florida’s donors will be particularly focused on the races of home-state candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. The presidential race will also dominate news coverage, suck up veteran political campaign staff, and absorb the energies of grassroots volunteers.

The reward for the candidate who, in the face of these natural disadvantages, raises enough money to compete? He or she faces a state with extraordinarily complex demographics in both the primary and general electorates: Cuban Americans in Miami, a rapidly growing population of Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area, seniors all over central Florida, and socially conservative, rock-ribbed Republicans in the north.

And after building a viable statewide organization, raising and spending a considerable sum of money, and navigating Florida’s demographic minefield to win the primary, the candidate has to do it all over again in the general election, in a state that where Democrats enjoy a 400,000+ voter-registration advantage. The electorate will undoubtedly be bigger than in the midterm election that elected Rubio, and will likely include a lot more Democrats.

In 2012, the Republican candidate, congressman Connie Mack, spent more than $7.5 million in his bid to unseat incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, and when you throw in national parties and outside groups, nearly $17 million was spent to elect Mack — actually more than Nelson’s total by the same measure.

Yet that $17 million didn’t even make it close. Mack received just 42 percent of the vote to Nelson’s 55 percent.

That’s not to say there’s no hope at all. Florida governor Rick Scott’s reelection last year over Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist might provide Republicans a blueprint: Scott’s team campaigned as the underdogs early in the cycle, hustled every step of the way, and got 240,000 more votes outside of South Florida than he had in 2010.

Undoubtedly, Crist’s chameleon-like pandering made him a more vulnerable foe than Nelson, but there’s no getting around the astronomical sums Scott spent, thanks in part to his ability to self-finance when needed. (He dumped an extra $13 million into his campaign near the end of the race.) In the closing days, Scott was spending roughly $1,200 a minute on TV ads.

“For insiders and politically ambitious people, the phrase is, ‘you run to lose to run to win.’ I don’t think that [people who] look at Florida from the outside get that,” says Jeff Atwater, the state’s chief financial officer and one of those Republicans gearing up for a possible 2016 run. He’s referring to the fact that many of Florida’s statewide officials ran and lost a statewide race before winning one: Crist in 1998, Bush in 1994, Nelson in 1990. The hurdles of building name ID and a reputation among voters are so high – Florida is also a state with a lot of transplants — that candidates almost require a practice run first.

“When your first-time introduction is a statewide race, it is just extraordinarily difficult,” Atwater says. Conveniently for him, he’s already won two statewide races.

Atwater may be the most open about his intentions, but plenty of Florida Republicans are mulling a bid, including Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera, congressman Ron DeSantis, and former state-house speaker Will Weatherford.

“Marco would be a shoo-in for reelection to the Senate,” said DeSantis, whose district stretches from the Jacksonville suburbs to Daytona Beach. “If he decides to run for president, then the Senate race becomes more competitive. A GOP candidate needs to run strong on national security, articulate a plan to alleviate the middle-class economic squeeze, and demonstrate a commitment to reforming the culture of Washington.”

Representative Vern Buchanan of Sarasota is also considering a bid, but the 2016 opportunity arrives as his House career is taking off. He is already on the powerful House Ways & Means Committee, and will soon take the spot of the Representative Aaron Schock of Illinois on the House Budget Committee.

An early March poll of Florida Republicans from Gravis Marketing found state attorney general Pam Bondi in the lead at 36 percent. State agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam, who is thought to prefer trying a run for governor in 2018, sat behind Bondi at 12 percent. And Atwater was in third at 9 percent. Technically, the real front-runner was “undecided,” with 43 percent.

There’s always the chance that Democrats will help out Republicans by nominating a second-tier candidate. Crist announced he’s not interested, and Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, also turned down a bid.

With Crist and Wasserman Schultz out, the two names most often mentioned on the Democratic side are Representative Patrick Murphy of Jupiter, and the infamously combative Representative Alan Grayson, who represents Orlando’s suburbs. If the Democrats nominate Grayson, his obnoxious and intensely partisan persona would make the GOP nominee’s task easier – and bring in donations from grassroots Republicans who detest Grayson.

There are other signs of optimism for Republicans. A Mason-Dixon poll conducted in March tested Atwater against Wasserman Schultz, who hadn’t yet announced her decision, and Murphy. The poll found Atwater leads both, a 45 percent to 35 percent advantage over Wasserman Schultz and a 46 percent to 32 percent lead over Murphy. His name recognition statewide was 68 percent.

For the next 21 months, Florida is likely to the center of the American political world. Everyone in politics already knows that the Republican presidential candidate’s hopes for victory hinge in large part on winning Florida, but the state will go a long way toward determining if the GOP keeps control of the Senate as well.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot for National Review Online.

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