Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy has hammered Marco Rubio for weeks on women’s issues, whether it be the Republican incumbent’s opposition to abortion or his continued allegiance to Donald Trump.
After Murphy persisted on that line of attack for the better part of Monday night’s U.S. Senate debate in Orlando, Rubio had had enough.
And he lowered the boom on his challenger — so abruptly it left Murphy temporarily rattled in search of a response.
The weapon: An old photo of a fresh-faced Patrick Murphy sitting at a table with one arm around a woman and a few fingers of his other hand apparently grabbing at her breast.
The photo had been quietly circulating for weeks among GOP circles, and with one remark Rubio publicized it to a statewide — and online, a national — audience.
“This is, like, the third time tonight that you’ve implied that I don’t somehow respect women or that somehow I’m someone who condones the outrageous behavior that the nominee of my party or others may have conducted against women,” Rubio said. “Congressman, you’re the one that posted a picture four years ago on Facebook of you groping a woman. That’s inappropriate behavior.”
Murphy’s initial response to Rubio proved to be his weakest moment of the night. “Let’s just talk about Donald Trump again, right?!” he said.
On Tuesday, Murphy, 33, continued to try to shift the conversation, dismissing the photo as an artifact from his 20s. He said Rubio’s attempts to use it against him were “low” and “desperate.”
“Look, when Donald Trump goes low, Marco Rubio goes lower,” Murphy told reporters after a campaign event in West Tampa, channeling a variation of a Democratic soundbite made famous by first lady Michelle Obama during her speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer.
“This is a picture with my girlfriend from my 20s, a college girlfriend. I dated her for four years, and we were at dinner,” Murphy said.
Asked later to elaborate on the date and circumstances of the photo, a Murphy spokesman said the campaign would let the congressman’s words stand on their own.
Murphy graduated from the University of Miami in 2006. He first ran for the U.S. House in 2011 at age 28, and he won his Palm Beach County-Treasure Coast seat in the 2012 election.
“Look, Marco Rubio showed just how desperate he was last night by trying to wiggle, and got himself in this knot about Donald Trump,” Murphy said in West Tampa. “He’s trying to pivot and change the subject. It was very clear to me how uncomfortable Marco Rubio was when talking about Donald Trump and someone who’s bragging about sexually assaulting women. It’s unbelievable to me.”
Rubio’s campaign on Tuesday said Murphy is the one who is “truly desperate” because he’s a “flawed candidate,” continues to lag Rubio in polls and has lost financial support from national Democrats. (However, one pre-debate poll released Tuesday showed Murphy only two percentage points behind Rubio.)
“Last night, Marco exposed Patrick Murphy as a hypocrite. Murphy was photographed groping a woman, and then he posted it on Facebook because he was proud of it,” Rubio spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said. “When Marco pointed out Murphy’s hypocrisy, Murphy tried to change the subject instead of taking responsibility.”
Perez-Cubas said the campaign came by the photo “the same way everybody else saw it: Murphy had it up on his Facebook wall before he ran for Congress.” Murphy’s personal Facebook page has been private for some time.
“There are no excuses for disrespecting women,” Perez-Cubas said. “There are no excuses for bragging about it on social media. Murphy’s behavior was not appropriate then, and he still doesn’t understand that now.”
But the timing of Rubio’s attack during the debate — coupled with his announcement Tuesday of a “Women for Marco” Coalition — show the incumbent could be trying to counter a Trump effect and to better court women voters three weeks before Election Day.
After the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape was leaked Oct. 7 — showing Trump making lewd comments about groping and kissing women without their consent — Rubio was somewhat slow in giving a substantive response, something Murphy pounced on last week hoping to, at last, gain an advantage in the race.
Rubio admonished Trump’s comments that day in a tweet but then waited four days before publicly reaffirming his endorsement of Trump. He didn’t address it again until Monday — when he spent several minutes in the beginning of the debate defending his support for Trump, while not actually defending anything about the Republican nominee himself.
As Murphy recovered from Rubio’s attack, he doubled down on linking Rubio to Trump.
“Think about who my opponent, Marco Rubio, has endorsed to be our next president. Bragging about sexually assaulting women? I don’t need to hear a lecture from you about women’s rights,” Murphy said.
Clark reported from the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau. Marrero, a Tampa Bay Times staff writer, reported from Tampa.