Broward County

Political upstart’s Trump-talk paying off in Florida’s U.S. Senate race

U.S. Senate GOP candidate Carlos Beruff
U.S. Senate GOP candidate Carlos Beruff The Miami Herald

Donald Trump’s rancorous campaign strategy has gone down-ticket in Florida. And so far, the unfettered use of Trumpesque invectives seems to have pushed the unlikely Carlos Beruff ahead of the field in the Republican primary campaign to replace U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.

Call me sentimental, but there was a time when a serious candidate for the U.S. Senate would not have characterized President Obama as “this animal we call president, because he’s an animal.” Not in public. Not in a campaign speech. Not like Beruff.

The Manatee County developer even out-crazied Trump’s much criticized promise to shut down Muslim immigration into the U.S. According to the Sun Sentinel, Beruff told a gathering of Broward County Republicans last month that he didn’t “think it's safe to allow anybody from the Middle East into this country.” No one from the Middle East, neither Christian nor Muslim, would be coming in. (He later amended his proposed policy to say doors would remain open for Israelis.)

By now we’ve become so inured to Beruff’s unseemly statements that when he called Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald an idiot and a moron last week, the characterizations had no more shock than one of Trump’s daily diatribes. Beruff has been making strategic use of Donald’s mean-talking template. And apparently it’s working.

An OnMessage poll, financed by Beruff’s campaign, indicated that the developer, in his first run for elected office, was leading a field that includes two U.S. representatives, the lieutenant governor and a former Green Beret sniper. His poll numbers put Beruff at 17 percent, up from a survey in November that put him at barely 1 percent. Two weeks ago, a poll of 1,885 “engaged Republican activists” put Beruff’s support at 27.2 percent, eight points ahead of his closest competitor.

The four candidates lagging behind Beruff are all given to a more civil political discourse. Even combat veteran Todd Wilcox, the one-time Green Beret and later a CIA operative in Iraq, employs less combative language than Beruff. But it’s the Trump talker whose leading the polls.

Not that the Miami-born Beruff has undergone a personality makeover for the 2016 election. This was the guy who, as a member of the board of trustees of the State College of Florida, hounded President Lars Hafner into resigning. Who pushed through controversial measures to end faculty tenure and put professors on one-year, performance-based contracts. Who nurtured a notorious disdain for environmental regulations. Jeremy Wallace, of the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau, reported that when a Manatee County commissioner bucked Beruff’s home-building company over some development issues, the vindictive Beruff poured $61,000 into a challenger’s successful campaign.

The multimillionaire developer has another Trump attribute in his favor — money. Lots of it. Wallace reported last week that Beruff has spent about $3 million on TV campaign ads, with most of the money coming from his own bank account.

Other candidates, looking at the poll numbers, might try emulating Beruff’s nasty rhetoric, but a self-funding mean-old-rich-guy campaign may be tougher to imitate.