Elections

Patrick Murphy’s loss to Marco Rubio was foreseeable — but not certain

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy gives his concession speech following his loss to Sen. Marco Rubio at the Palm Beach Gardens Marriott in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy gives his concession speech following his loss to Sen. Marco Rubio at the Palm Beach Gardens Marriott in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. Sun Sentinel via AP

A defeat for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Patrick Murphy was foreseeable for weeks, with his lingering chance for victory hinging primarily on one main factor: Hillary Clinton.

Had she won Florida by a wide margin, the Democratic presidential nominee’s wave of support would have likely carried Murphy into higher office, too.

But that didn’t happen. Not even close.

Donald Trump won Florida, and ultimately the presidency. And Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio effortlessly beat Murphy, even outperforming Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton.

MORE: Rubio returns to U.S. Senate

Although Murphy would become one among a wave of devastating losses for Democrats nationwide on Tuesday, the signs for Murphy, in particular, were long there.

And by Tuesday evening — before the final outcome was known — even Murphy, his dedicated campaign team and his passionate supporters gathered in Palm Beach Gardens understood the reality he faced.

The two-term Jupiter congressman was only regionally known when he entered the Senate race in March 2015, best known for knocking off tea party incumbent Allen West four years ago.

But after 20 months of campaigning, he didn’t move the needle enough. Poll after poll showed many Florida voters still didn’t know who he was.

Murphy could have overcome that had he faced any of the handful of equally lesser known Republicans previously in the Senate contest. But then, bouncing back from an unsuccessful presidential run, Rubio declared for reelection in June and never once lagged in any of the four dozen polls conducted since.

Meanwhile, Murphy was plagued since early summer by revelations that he’d exaggerated his résumé — a critical weakness that Republicans capitalized on to define Murphy through a barrage of attack ads.

And, as Murphy struggled, Democrats withdrew millions of dollars in aid in favor of states where ad rates are cheaper and other Senate candidates had better shots at winning. The strategy stunted Murphy’s ability to fight back through TV ads of his own.

The mood of Murphy’s Election Night party proved that his supporters — although fingers-crossed and holding out hope — were braced for a loss.

His 200 guests lacked any of the enthusiasm or adrenaline that precedes a victory celebration. They barely reacted, save for a mild smattering of delayed boos, when the Senate race was called for Rubio shortly after the final Florida polls closed at 8 p.m.

Murphy’s party also had the notable absence of any special guests or Democratic Party leaders, an establishment that had once eagerly rallied around Murphy. The only prominent figure was fellow U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel — who came only briefly prior to the party to speak with reporters on his behalf before leaving for her own (victorious) party in West Palm Beach.

Murphy, 33, presented an optimistic face even through the final hours, campaigning late into Election Day with his familiar boyish grin. Murphy predicted he’d win by 1 or 2 percentage points.

But the result wasn’t even competitive: Rubio swept Murphy by a decisive 8 points, a margin of nearly 717,000 votes.

716,800 votesMarco Rubio’s statewide margin of victory over Patrick Murphy, in unofficial but complete results

Murphy did not speak with reporters on Wednesday. His campaign said he’s taking a few days to spend time with family and friends and has “no immediate plans” beyond that.

His campaign added that it’s proud of the operation it ran and it emphasized that Murphy did all he could to win against insurmountable odds and a formidable, nationally known incumbent.

But political observers say Murphy could have done more to improve his prospects, even while being an obvious underdog against Rubio.

Perhaps Murphy’s greatest weakness was his lack of name recognition across the vast Sunshine State, and he wasn’t as visible as he could have been even after more than a year and a half on the campaign trail.

“It looked like Murphy was not out and about enough, even in the I-4 corridor,” said Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida. “We just didn’t see him here that much.”

The candidate himself — or his campaign — kept Murphy sheltered and guarded, restricting his exposure. Interactions with reporters were calculated and approached with caution. Public events, especially over the crucial summer primary months, were noticeably uncommon; many of his campaign stops were private, not on his public schedule.

Again and again, pundits and political observers criticized Murphy as “not ready for prime time.”

He held no true campaign rallies of his own to energize voters, instead relying only in the last month on the crowds and high-profile surrogates at Hillary Clinton rallies to give him a boost among the Democratic base.

It helped a little to share the stage with the likes of Clinton, President Barack Obama or Vice President Joe Biden. For the first time, his campaign said recently, rally-goers recognized Murphy without introduction, seeking him out for autographs and selfies “like a celebrity.”

And yet, Murphy did little on his own to court independents or moderates, especially north of the I-4 corridor.

I don’t think they [Murphy’s campaign] did enough work in the Panhandle.

Susan MacManus, University of South Florida political science professor

He publicly campaigned in North Florida — key territory in Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson’s past victories — barely a handful of times since early August. A campaign advisor said that strategy came down to the cost-benefit Murphy would get from the time spent traveling and campaigning in those far reaches of the state versus in more populous areas of the I-4 corridor or South Florida.

But MacManus called it a mistake to write off North Florida voters.

“I don’t think they did enough work in the Panhandle. The Panhandle turnout is huge,” she said. “You make up some of the loss in urban areas by high turnout in those conservative parts of the state.”

It was those rural areas that buoyed Rubio’s victory, along with strong support in the Tampa Bay area and Jacksonville, Tuesday’s results showed. Murphy won just nine out of Florida’s 67 counties, primarily Democratic hot spots: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange, Osceola, Leon, Alachua, Gadsden and St. Lucie.

Murphy waited until late in the game before aggressively courting Hispanic and other minority voters. He didn’t hire a Hispanic outreach strategist until late September and only after that did he air Spanish-language ads or promote key issues important to that demographic, such as immigration.

Three hours before Florida’s first polls closed on Election Day, Murphy — unable to say more than a sentence in Spanish to Hispanic media — vowed to brush up on the language if elected to the Senate.

Murphy’s campaign and his supporters insist that a key reason he lost was simple: He was outspent by Rubio and a vast, influential fundraising network.

And they’re lamenting more publicly now the fact that national Democrats abandoned Murphy this fall, gradually withdrawing about $16 million in reserved ad time for him that would have, at least, kept Murphy competitive with Rubio’s arsenal.

I wish he had more resources, because if he did, I wouldn’t have my fingers crossed, I’d be getting ready to applaud.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, of West Palm Beach

“Patrick was not known by most people,” Frankel, the West Palm Beach congresswoman, said Tuesday before the race was called. “I’m sure he’s going to win big in Palm Beach County, where he’s well known, and probably in Broward also, but the rest of the state it’s very hard to penetrate, especially your first time out.”

She added: “I wish he had more resources, because if he did, I wouldn’t have my fingers crossed, I’d be getting ready to applaud.”

Campaign finance data compiled by ProPublica shows outside groups supporting Rubio outspent pro-Murphy groups by 3 to 1. Out of $46 million in outside spending in Florida’s Senate race, at least $34.5 million was spent on behalf of Rubio, while just $11.3 million helped Murphy.

Among their individual campaigns, Murphy actually outspent Rubio, as of Oct. 19, the most recent data available. Federal Election Commission records show Murphy spent $13.4 million, compared to Rubio’s $10.5 million.

Murphy’s prospects against Rubio strengthened temporarily in mid-October after the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump was released — giving Murphy fresh ammunition to target Rubio for his continued allegiance to the business mogul.

Some polls reflected Murphy gaining on Rubio’s lead, but into the final two weeks of the campaign, Rubio pulled away again. For good.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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