U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy easily won their primaries Tuesday, setting up a battle over the next 70 days that promises to play a critical role in determining which political party controls the U.S. Senate for the next two years.
Rubio, who insisted four months ago that he didn’t want his Senate job anymore, won 72 percent of the vote in the Republican primary against the brash, self-funding millionaire Carlos Beruff and two lesser known candidates.
Murphy won 59 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary that included liberal firebrand U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, political novice Pam Keith, a Miami labor attorney and Navy veteran, and two lesser established opponents.
Tuesday’s outcome was what Democratic leaders have wanted for nearly 18 months. Shortly after the 33-year-old, two-term congressman declared his bid for U.S. Senate in March 2015, the party’s establishment showered him with high-profile endorsements — including one from President Barack Obama — and lucrative financial support.
“I will be the hardest-working senator this state has ever had,” Murphy told supporters at his victory party in Palm Beach Gardens. “I will listen to you, I will meet with you and I will bring your voice to the United States Senate.”
Both Rubio and Murphy have been girding for this showdown. During their recent campaign stops, Murphy and Rubio have rarely mentioned their primary opponents. Instead, Murphy has aimed attacks on Rubio, reminding voters that the incumbent vowed earlier this year he would not seek reelection. He continued that line of attack on Tuesday.
“Senator Marco Rubio is the embodiment of the worst of Washington,” Murphy said. “I promise I will serve a full six-year term for the people of Florida.”
Likewise, Rubio was fixated on Murphy in the closing days, calling him “one of the most unaccomplished members of Congress.”
To supporters, Rubio made clear the stakes — nothing less than Republicans retaining control over the Senate and shaping the U.S. Supreme Court for years to come.
“With a vacancy on the Supreme Court, with the potential that Chuck Schumer of New York will be the majority leader. With all the issues facing Americans, I’m so grateful now to come back with you here today,” Rubio told supporters in Orlando on Tuesday night.
Republicans currently hold a 54-46 seat majority in the Senate. If Hillary Clinton defeats Donald Trump and Democrats gain four seats, they take control. Florida’s Senate seat is among nine that’s considered a toss-up.
“If you do your part and I do mine, we’ll win in November, we’ll keep the majority in the Senate,” Rubio said in North Florida last week.
Despite the high stakes, this was not the race Rubio expected to be in.
After spending a year running for president and losing 66 out of 67 counties in his home state to Trump, Rubio repeatedly declared he was ready to leave office.
But in June, Rubio announced he had changed his mind citing concerns that without him in the race, Democrats’ chances of winning the majority would increase. It didn’t hurt that Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, recruited Rubio to run, forcing four other Republicans to drop out of the race.
That left only Beruff.
Without backing from national Republicans and their donor networks, Beruff was forced to spend $8 million of his own money to forge a campaign in a state where TV ads are a necessity.
Beruff tried to use Rubio’s political ambition against him, frequently playing up Rubio’s missed votes while campaigning for president and his refusal to say whether he would run again for the White House in four years. But Beruff never gained traction.
Rubio brings instant star power that the five Republicans who initially sought to replace him lacked. And Rubio is a fundraising dynamo — raising more than $40 million for his presidential campaign — who is battle tested, having won a tough come-from-behind race to win his seat in 2010.
“Rubio was a game changer when he got back into the race,” veteran Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich said.
A seat Democrats looked to seize suddenly became a lot dicier. Over the last 12 years, incumbents have won reelection to the Senate more than 85 percent of the time.
Rubio improves Republican chances, but the race is still one of the nation’s truly competitive contests, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst with the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C. She said Rubio has consistently led in polls, but only in the single digits.
“I don’t see that changing much between now and November,” Duffy said.
Murphy initially looked like he gave Democrats a statewide candidate with youth and earnestness that could draw independent and moderate voters, Duffy said. But a series of self-inflicted résumé gaffes uncovered by the Herald/Times altered that equation. The revelations did little damage to Murphy in the primary because his chief opponent, Grayson, struggled under the scrutiny of an on-going Congressional ethics investigation into offshore hedge funds he managed while in office and allegations that emerged in July by his former wife that Grayson had physically abused her during their previous 25-year marriage.
Grayson disputed the accusation but it wasn’t enough to keep him competitive against Murphy. Grayson toured the state with a few town hall events this month but largely stayed off the radar in the final stretch of the campaign. Grayson barely was leading Keith to hold onto a distant second-place finish in the race.
Rubio is already using Murphy’s résumé gaffes against him. As Donald Trump’s polls numbers continue to slide, Murphy’s strategy has been to tie Rubio to the Republican presidential nominee.
It promises to be a negative campaign that could turn off voters, but not enough to give the third party candidates a shot to win it.
But Libertarian Paul Stanton, who defeated Augustus Invictus in that party’s primary on Tuesday, will be one of five other candidates on the ballot in November offering a choice beside Rubio or Murphy. Four candidates with no party affiliation have already qualified for the general election.
Miami Herald reporter Alex Daugherty and Tampa Bay Times reporter Allison Graves contributed to this report.