Palm Court, Fla. — The first person Carlos Beruff talks to when he arrives for an event with the Flagler County Young Republicans has no intention of voting for him.
“I’m a [Marco] Rubio guy. And I told him that,” says Michael Randazzo, who chatted with Beruff in the ballroom of the Hilton Garden Inn before the event started here Thursday. “But I’m a Rubio guy ’cause Rubio’s there now. And I kind of like him. . . . He’s made mistakes, Rubio, but not enough to not be a senator.”
This is the crux of the problem facing Beruff, a wealthy home-builder who suddenly finds himself mounting a primary challenge to a popular and well-known incumbent: Whatever Rubio may have done, Florida Republicans still like him . . . enough.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Beruff entered the race in February, he joined a field of four largely unknown candidates vying to replace Rubio, who had decided not to run for reelection. Beruff, too, was unknown, and still is — a recent poll conducted by Associated Industries of Florida found just 20 percent of Florida Republicans knew enough about him to have an opinion. But unlike the other four candidates, Beruff stayed in the race after Rubio changed his mind.
“Quitting is not part of my DNA,” he says, as he pilots his Audi S8 from the private airport where he keeps his Cirrus SR22, a four-seat, single-engine plane that has helped him get to all of Florida’s 67 counties over the past several months while still making it home to his family in Sarasota each night. Beruff’s willingness to devote his vast personal wealth and resources to his campaign was a major advantage before Rubio got in. “I said, you know, if you’re gonna do this, you gotta go all over Florida. And I already owned the plane,” he recounts when we first meet for an hour-long interview at a Panera before the Young Republicans event on Thursday. For the next 24 hours, I will travel with him from there, to his home of Sarasota, to a town hall in Ft. Myers on Friday, and then back to Sarasota.
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Beruff’s wealth is part of what originally made him an appealing candidate for national Republicans: The National Republican Senatorial Committee is defending incumbents or open seats in at least seven highly competitive races. Someone who could self-fund a campaign in Florida, a gigantic state that demands resources proportionate to its size, could help free up money for other competitive seats.
Beruff recalls that around 10 p.m. on October 8, someone called him up lamenting the lack of a businessperson in the Senate race, and urging him to consider running. He won’t say who that person was — only that it was “a friend.” Beruff initially told the friend he must have a wrong number. To hear him tell it, the thought of running had never before crossed his mind. “Never. Hell no, man,” he says. The call made such an impression that he actually took a picture of the phone record, which is why he can so accurately recite the time and date. At the caller’s urging, he talked to Curt Anderson, a GOP consultant at On Message who had worked on Florida governor Rick Scott’s reelection bid, talked to his wife, thought about it, and emerged five months later as a candidate for Senate.
Beruff has been a longtime donor to and bundler for GOP candidates and committees. He’s donated over $240,000 to individual campaigns since 2005, according to FEC records, and another $99,500 to joint fundraising committees for various Republican efforts. Last year, he gave $5,000 to Right to Rise, the super PAC supporting Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. Rubio allies have pointed to this track record to call Beruff an “insider.” Rubio has personally criticized Beruff’s financial support of the unsuccessful 2010 Senate bid of Charlie Crist, the party-switching bête noire of Florida conservatives.
Beruff says his experience as a donor hasn’t informed the way he’s campaigning. He’s not soliciting much money from donors, choosing to mostly self-fund his bid. “I’m doing fundraising, don’t get me wrong, but you can’t raise enough funds” to be able to compete in a state as large as Florida, he says. He expects to spend about $15 million of his own money, all told, a sum he says he has no qualms about devoting to the campaign.
Before June 22, that may well have been sufficient to get him the nomination. But unlike the four men he was previously running against, Rubio is a formidable fundraiser who took in $2.1 million in the nine days following his reentry into the race. And unlike Beruff, Rubio does not need to spend any money to raise his name recognition.
Beruff’s experience as a donor does seem to have informed his view of politicians and Washington. As a donor, before he gave any money, he says he wanted to meet the candidate in person and “look in their eyes and say, ‘Okay, are you really what you say you are?’” Sometimes, he says, he got duped.
“I think what happens is people would say and do certain things to get elected to office, and then they get there and, unfortunately, some of the people who get elected to office, it’s the best job they ever had. And once they have it, the power of incumbency is such that they don’t want to give it up,” Beruff says. “So they become more about the polls and the political wins than the principles that they looked me in the eye and said, ‘I stand for this, I stand for that.’ What happened? What happened to that?”
It’s a similar-sounding argument to the one he makes when he speaks to voters: that the people in Washington aren’t up to the task set before them.
Following through on what you’ve said you’ll do is a constant theme with Beruff.
“If we don’t send people to Washington who, first of all, have done something more than talk for a living — which is what many politicians have done — nothing gets done. We gained the House, we gained the Senate, and nothing got done. And they don’t show up to work,” he tells the Flagler County Young Republicans meeting an hour later, taking a not-so-subtle shot at Rubio’s much-publicized Senate-attendance record.
Following through on what you’ve said you’ll do is a constant theme with Beruff over the two days I spend with him. It’s a theme he uses on the campaign trail to create a contrast with Rubio, who reversed his position on running for reelection and has been accused of flip-flopping on immigration and other hot-button issues in the past. It also seems to be a big reason Beruff didn’t make way for Rubio, despite the fact that the incumbent’s entry into the race upended his plans. He takes a dig at another candidate for the seat whom he does not name, but who is evidently Todd Wilcox, for originally declaring he would stay in no matter what, and then getting out the day after Rubio announced his bid. “Mostly, people are no substance,” Beruff says with obvious disdain.
“Trust is a big deal in life, and I’m very old school about that stuff. If I say, shake your hand, [and promise] ‘I’m gonna do this at 4 o’clock on Tuesday three years from now,’ unless I’m in the hospital, or you get a phone call from me, I will see you there,” Beruff tells me.
In Beruff’s daily life, he is pointedly punctual. He arrives to our interview 30 minutes early. The next day, as we leave his office for a noon town hall in Ft. Myers, he asks his communications director Chris Hartline with alarm: “Are we going to make it on time?”
We arrive with time to spare — the venue, a steak and seafood restaurant called KJ’s, is less than a three-minute drive from the airport. We stop around the corner to grab coffee. Beruff likes “boutique-y” coffee shops and tries to avoid the big chains. (“It’s more of an adventure,” he says.) So we end up at Chef Brookes Natural Café, a place that makes smoothies with hemp protein powder and smells strongly of incense.
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Beruff orders a coffee with almond milk — he says he switched from soy milk after he “read that soy milk gives men breasts” — and we sit down for a moment. He is clad in gray suit pants, a white shirt with monogrammed cuffs, and a coral pink tie with blue and white diagonal stripes. At the table a few feet over, a barefoot man sits cross-legged on his chair eating his lunch. There is no sign of his shoes.
We make it to the town hall around the corner right on time. But after a short conversation with the manager of the restaurant, all of a sudden it’s 12:01.
“I’m Carlos Beruff, and I’m one minute late,” he declares to the crowd upon entering the room.
Beruff does not fit the mold of the traditionally successful primary challenger. He is not challenging Rubio from the right: Most Florida Republicans still see Rubio as sufficiently conservative, and the entities that would usually legitimize an insurgent bid — Club for Growth, Tea Party Patriots, Ted Cruz — are all backing the senator.
Instead, his campaign has fashioned him into a Trump-like character: an outsider with the business acumen to do the job and the vast personal wealth to ensure independence from the Republican establishment and the various moneyed interests that corrupt Washington. Like Trump, Beruff is unscripted, brushing off things he disagrees with as “stupid” and occasionally leveling frank insults at Rubio and others. He made headlines in May for referring to President Obama as an “animal” at a campaign event. His ads are brash and in-your-face affairs. And while Rubio has sought to distance himself from Trump, expressing serious reservations about the presumptive nominee’s rhetoric and positions, Beruff has endorsed him and hugged him tightly in public forums. A press release from his campaign Monday blared: “We need business people like Trump to fix the VA.”
#share#In person, Beruff isn’t quite the brash mini-Trump that he has been made out to be. He is chivalrous: He calls on women in the audience at his town hall first, he holds doors for me, and he insists on carrying my duffel bag and lifting it in and out of the trunk space in his plane and car. (At one point, he remarks that at least two trackers will have video footage of him carrying my rather feminine bag.)
His friend Pat Neal, a wealthy Sarasota businessman and former state senator, recalls meeting him for the first time in 1983. “He dressed like a guy from Miami. And this was sort of a conservative, rural part of southwest Florida. . . . I was prepared to instantly dislike him. . . . And on the contrary, after listening for thirty seconds, I loved him. What I learned that Carlos knows how to do is relate to people,” Neal says.
Beruff never raises his voice, and, unlike Trump, he rarely mentions his opponent by name at campaign events. “It’s easy to put people down. The bottom line is he has a record, these people know what his record is, but what they don’t know is anything about Carlos Beruff. Okay, so if all I go in there and say [is], ‘blah blah blah blah,’ how are they gonna get to know anything about why I’m the better candidate?” he asks.
(Anderson, in a phone call several days later, cracks that perhaps Beruff was on his best behavior with a reporter in tow.)
At the Flagler County event, a woman brings up how different Beruff is in the flesh. “I’ve seen your commercials, and I was sort of like, ‘Whoa.’” But seeing him speak, she finds him much more “humble.” “Who,” she asks, “are you gonna be when you get up there?”
Beruff never raises his voice, and, unlike Trump, he rarely mentions his opponent by name at campaign events.
Beruff later explains it as a situational thing. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m talking to a friendly crowd of people to try to get to know them. I’m not making a commercial as to how I would react — because when I get mad, my Cuban temper comes out. It’s not pretty,” he says.
In person, Beruff also makes a point of creating a bit more space between himself and the nominee.
“Do I agree with Donald Trump on everything he says? No,” he tells me, dragging out that last word. “But if you and I were best friends there’s stuff I wouldn’t agree with you on. I don’t agree on everything with my wife.” It’s a point he takes a step further at the town hall in Ft. Myers, telling the crowd he doesn’t always agree with “the way” Trump says things either.
But, he says, Trump won fair and square, so, “As far as I’m concerned he’s the guy we need to back up and not be telling him how to do his job. Which is what Rubio is saying: ‘Oh, I’m gonna be there to check him.’ Are you kidding me? You can’t carry the man’s dirty socks.”
If there’s a comparison to be made, Beruff has a different one in mind: “If I’m going to compare myself to a candidate, it’s Rick Scott. It’s not Donald Trump,” he says.
But Trump appears to have stoked whatever appetite there is among some Florida Republicans for a Rubio alternative. The presumptive nominee dealt Rubio a bruising loss in the Florida presidential primary four months ago, and some felt it was deserved.
At the town hall in Ft. Myers, one woman refers to Rubio by the nickname Trump coined for him — “Little Marco” — when asking her question.
“I didn’t say that,” Beruff says, laughing.
“I did,” the woman replies tartly.
The sense of disillusionment is evident among a number of the 20 people at the event.
Anthony Thomas, another attendee, calls Rubio “a fraud” who got “totally snookered by Chuck Schumer with the immigration bill.” He and his family, he says, will be voting for Beruff.
“I’m just fed up with the politicians who just keep taking us for granted,” Mary Jo Hoyman, another attendee, says. “Marco Rubio said he was not going to run for reelection for Senate, and he jumped right back in it. I don’t know whether it’s ’cause he needs the money or whether he’s on a high ego trip, I don’t know what it is. But I’m fed up with it. . . . Mr. Beruff is my guy this time.”
Twenty people do not a winning campaign make, of course. Rubio may have angered some of his base with the immigration bill, but many appear ready to forgive him. Jenny Beth Martin, head of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, explicitly noted in the group’s endorsement of Rubio that she’s pleased with his change of heart on immigration legislation.
Rhetorically, Beruff is campaigning against the “sexy” and the “romantic,” words he repeats often and that seem to epitomize much of what he believes is wrong with politics and Washington right now. Rubio, he says, focuses on foreign policy because it “is romantic. It’s sexy. . . . I think you have to look at the stuff that isn’t sexy and fix it,” he says.
His latest ad knocks Obama for getting involved in the dispute over transgender-bathroom use playing out in North Carolina and other states, deeming it a distraction from the more relevant tasks of government. “They go to the sexy stuff, the stuff that will grab media, and take your focus off the big problems, the stuff that will continue to fester unimpeded,” he explains. Social issues, in general, he suggests, should not be the purview of elected officials. “I’m a businessperson. My focus is on what’s wrong with the business side of this country. The social issues, I think, belong to everyone individually. It’s not for me to determine how you should feel about something. That’s sort of stupid,” he says.
“You have to be a dogged person who will stay on topic and not get thrown off in all these little romantic things that come up and then that’s what catches the big splash,” he adds.
He has little patience for the flashy, symbolic gestures of politics. The dozens of votes the House has taken to repeal Obamacare? “That’s stupid,” he says. “That whole exercise to me has been a tremendous waste of money and time,” he adds, given the impossibility of enacting a repeal while Obama remains in office.
Talk of ousting Senator Mitch McConnell as the Republican majority leader, a favorite cudgel of conservative challengers, is something to which Beruff says he is indifferent. “It’s not gonna resolve any problem as far as I’m concerned,” he says.
#related#Beruff remains a long shot to win against Rubio. A News 13/Bay News 9 poll from the end of June had the incumbent ahead by 52 points, 63 percent to 11 percent. Beruff will have to spend significant sums of money on television to raise his name recognition, and they are not yet on the air at that level. The campaign intends to increase the size of its ad buy soon, though staffers declined to provide any details.
“Whether or not the clock will give us enough time to get there is another question,” acknowledges Anderson.
Asked if he believes he’s going to win, Beruff says, “I think so.” But he claims few political ambitions beyond this Senate bid. If he does win, he’s promised to self-impose a limit of two terms in office, because, as he explains at a campaign event, if he can’t accomplish everything he set out to accomplish in twelve years, he’s “a schmuck” whom voters shouldn’t want to send back for a third term. He does not appear to be laying the groundwork for a future bid for office.
“If I don’t win,” he says, this effort will have turn out to have been just like the anti-Obamacare votes: “a tremendous waste of time and money.”
— Alexis Levinson is the senior political reporter for National Review.