Decision by Orlando congresswomen to get into U.S. Senate race gives Democrats a high-profile candidate to try to unseat Miami Republican
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
ORLANDO (CFP) — Florida Democratic U.S. Rep. Val Demings burst onto the national political scene in early 2020 when she was picked as a House impeachment manager to make the case against Donald Trump — so much so that she soon found herself on Joe Biden’s vice presidential short list and was chattered about as a possible Cabinet secretary.
Now, Demings had decided to give up her safe House seat in Orlando after just three terms to run against Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio next year, as Democrats fight to hang on to their slim Senate majority.
Demings has not yet officially announced, but sources close to her have leaked her decision to run to media outlets, possibly in a move to discourage another metro Orlando Democratic congresswoman, Stephanie Murphy, from getting into the Senate race and forcing a primary.
And while her run will no doubt excite the Democratic base, she faces a daunting uphill climb in trying to unseat Rubio.
First, Florida — once considered the swingiest of swing states — has moved more into the Republican column. Donald Trump won by a bigger margin in 2020 than he did in 2016. Just one Democrat has won a Senate election in the past 20 years (Bill Nelson), and Republicans control all of the levers of power in Tallahassee.
Indeed, Demings looked at running against Republican Governor Ron DeSantis next year and decided to pass, a testament to the lock that the GOP has on state offices. (A Democrat hasn’t been elected governor since 1994).
Also, the Florida Democratic Party has been in significant disarray after a string of disappointing election cycles. The party was so broke that health insurance lapsed for its employees earlier this year. While the new party chairman, Manny Diaz, the former mayor of Miami, has started to right the ship, Republicans have a huge organizational advantage.
An even bigger challenge for Demings will be trying to unseat a senator who has managed to navigate the Trump currents in his party and can rely on deep roots in Miami-Dade’s powerful Cuban-American community.
Rubio — who famously made fun of Trump’s hands when he ran against him for president in 2016 — has managed to remain enough of a Trump loyalist not to get on his bad side, while not being as relentlessly pro-Trump as other leaders in his party.
Indeed, Trump — who delighted in denigrating Rubio as “Little Marco” in 2016 — endorsed his re-election in April, and Rubio appears unlikely to face a significant primary challenge from the Trump wing of the party.
Rubio, as a Cuban-American, will also have a strong base among Cuban voters in Miami-Dade County, which could demographically preclude a Democratic win.
To win statewide in Florida, a Democrat has to roll up huge margins in the Democratic areas of Tampa, Orlando and Broward and Palm Beach counties and keep enough of a lead in Miami-Dade to overcome the heavy Republican vote across the rest of the state.
Rubio on the ballot will make that task harder. Indeed, the 2020 election provided a painful lesson for Democrats when a collapse in the Democratic vote among Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade doomed Joe Biden and swept away Democratic U.S. House members Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell.
Demings will perhaps be able to mitigate that problem with counter-turnout in fast-growing Orlando, where she served as police chief and her husband, Jerry, a former sheriff, is mayor of Orange County. With her national profile, she will also be able to raise piles of money, as she tries to make history as the first African American ever elected to the Senate from the Sunshine State.
Although U.S. House maps will be redrawn before 2022, Demings’s majority-minority district anchored in Orlando would probably have remained safe for her. So the decision to run for the Senate will short-circuit what could be a substantial, long-term career in the lower House.
High risk, high reward. So is she making a bold move or embarking on a fool’s errand? The next year will tell the tale.