Five things missing in GOP opponent’s bid to unseat Marco Rubio

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Beruff
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Carlos Beruff ttompkins@bradenton.com

In his long shot bid to defeat Marco Rubio, Republican Carlos Beruff has yet to ignite the type of political grass fire that two years ago took out a top Republican leader in the U.S. House and nearly claimed four U.S. senators.

Following the insurgent’s playbook, Beruff has spent more than $8 million of his own money on television ads. The wealthy land developer has leveled stinging criticism at Rubio on immigration issues. And in a year Donald Trump has stormed the establishment, Beruff has drawn comparisons between himself and the Republican presidential nominee.

Yet, nothing. Not even a spark.

What Beruff is attempting is a rare feat. Since 1970, 632 U.S. senators have sought re-election and just 20 have been defeated in a primary.

Yet while 2014 proved incumbents aren’t always safe, Beruff is missing five key ingredients from that year that were crucial in turning Republican Senate races in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kansas and Kentucky into knock-down drag out brawls.

1. Street Cred

Although Beruff fancies himself an anti-establishment kind of guy, he’s lacked ties with grassroots activists who championed other challengers like Republican Chris McDaniel in Mississippi, who nearly took out 36-year incumbent Thad Cochran.

Unlike Beruff, McDaniel had deeper roots with influential tea party groups that were quick to help his campaign. Before taking on Cochran, McDaniel hosted a regional talk show, attended some of the earliest tea party rallies, and publicly took on then-Gov. Haley Barbour, a fixture in that state’s Republican circles, on big policy issues.

“He was known for years as a person who did not play well with the establishment,” said Jonathan Winburn, an associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi.

Not Beruff. When the tea party era launched, Beruff was still writing big checks to former Gov. Charlie Crist and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Steve Vernon, an activists with the Tea Party Manatee, said Beruff often backed county commissioners and school board members that his group opposes.

“He says all the right things in his ads,” Vernon said. “But we remember him from what he was doing before.”

“He just has no street cred with those types of groups,” said Ford O’Connell, a national Republican strategist who lives in Naples.

2. Oxygen

Unlike the 2014 challengers, Beruff has had plenty of money to throw into the race. But it’s done little to get Beruff attention.

“Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are taking all of the oxygen out of the room,” O’Connell said.

Presidential cycles have historically been bad time to take on incumbents in primaries. Over the last 4 presidential election cycles, just one of 108 incumbent senators running for re-election have failed to win their primary: Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana. In non-presidential years over the same time period, with an identical 108 incumbents seeking re-election, 5 have lost in addition to the close calls in 2014.

“There is only so much bandwidth,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

3. An audience

A political grass fire is easier to start in a smaller state, Kondik said. He said the most serious challengers in 2014 were in smaller states where reaching voters is easier and cheaper.

Kansas, Mississippi and Kentucky combined have 10.3 million people, about half of Florida’s population.

“It’s just easier to make the case in a smaller state,” Kondik said.

Beruff has the double difficulty of trying to run an upset campaign at light speed. When Beruff entered the race in February, Rubio was not running for re-election. But after Rubio’s presidential bid failed, he jumped back into the Senate race in June. That gave Beruff just two months to make his case to GOP voters before theAug. 30 primary.

In 2014, the biggest challengers were on the trail for a year or more.

4. Outside help

In 2014, tea party groups, itching for fights with incumbents, went on the offensive. In Mississippi, the influential Club For Growth put more than $3 million into helping McDaniel’s cause.

But in Rubio, Beruff is taking on a candidate who was supported by Club for Growth in 2010 and has endorsed him this year over Beruff.

5. The element of surprise

Rubio’s campaign hasn’t fully blown off Beruff like some incumbents did in 2014.

Winburn said if there was one lesson Republican leaders took from Cochran’s ordeal, it was to not let any opponent sneak up on them like in Mississippi and in Virginia where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor stunningly lost his re-election in 2014.

Rubio’s early television ads have talked about his likely Democratic opponents but fail to mention Beruff. But a group supporting Rubio and allies to Rubio have floated story ideas to reporters urging them to dig into parts of Beruff’s business background or his past political roles.

A super PAC supporting Rubio, for instance, starting running ads in July trying to connect Beruff to Crist. The ads from the Florida First Project started airing in mid-July, just three weeks after Rubio got into the race.