Florida’s U.S. Senate race: Alan Grayson says he’s in

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson
U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson AP

The 2016 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate in Florida just got interesting.

U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, the liberal firebrand whose unpredictability enthralls progressives and worries moderates, announced Thursday that he will run against the more centrist U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy for the Senate seat that would be vacated by current Sen. Marco Rubio, a candidate for the presidency.

“People understand what I stand for,” Grayson said on the WKMG television station in Orlando on Thursday. “They know I am a champion for justice, equality and peace and I do my best to help people in need.”

He plans to campaign on giving seniors a Social Security raise, expanding the services covered by Medicare, reducing student loans and expanding access to healthcare.

“I don’t think Obamacare has gone far enough,” he told the Miami Herald after his announcement.

The race pits polar opposites against each other.

Grayson, 57, from Orlando, is known for his raucous style. In 2009, he described a proposed GOP healthcare plan as “if you do get sick, die quickly” and once compared former Vice President Dick Cheney to a vampire.

Murphy, 32, from Jupiter, represents a GOP-leaning district where he has fashioned himself as a moderate who strives for bipartisan consensus in many areas. He has joined the GOP on certain votes, including backing the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Grayson will try to portray himself as the Democrat in the race. Murphy was a Republican until he ran for Congress in 2012 and ousted tea-party favorite Allen West. Murphy donated $2,300 to Mitt Romney in 2007.

But Murphy now has the backing of the party establishment, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and endorsements from several dozen Democratic politicians, ranging from senators to mayors.

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former Miami-Dade legislator and county property appraiser, is expected to announce his bid for Rubio’s seat July 15. U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach launched his campaign in May; U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller of Chumuckla is considering a bid.

Grayson won a congressional seat in 2008. He lost it in 2010 and then won in a new district in 2012.

He dismissed concerns raised by some Democrats about his electability — including his friend and trial lawyer John Morgan, who told the Herald Wednesday night he believes Grayson has a “snowball’s chance in hell” of winning the general election.

The congressman’s reply? “I think John should lay off the Scotch before noon.”

Morgan and other Democrats are worried that Grayson’s messy divorce and controversies about his hedge funds — which prompted requests for a congressional investigation in recent days — will damage his campaign. The complaints question whether Grayson is violating a House rule by using his name on the funds. Grayson said he has done nothing wrong and described the investigative requests as “politically motivated hit pieces being done in order to smear me.”

The challenge posed by a Grayson candidacy isn’t his ideology but his temperament, said Democratic consultant Steve Schale.

“My argument isn’t that a progressive can’t win in Florida — my argument is that progressive can’t win in Florida,” Schale said.

From the get-go, knowing that the GOP had a target on his back, Murphy has weighed his votes and statements carefully. Many of his comments focus on non-controversial issues such as funding for estuaries, speaking out against anti-Semitism and making the regulatory process for businesses more efficient. He often notes when he participates in bipartisan bills, such as the one he sponsored with Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, to ban “wasteful spending.”

In recent months, the thought of Grayson running has excited certain camps on the left and the right. Republican activists savor the possibility of running against Grayson because his declarations leave plenty of room for attack. Murphy poses separate challenges to Republicans: It’s tougher to attack someone with a moderate record who was once one of their own and treads carefully with his words.

Some activists on the left crave the idea of choosing an outspoken liberal after the party has run with some seemingly safer choices who lost, such as former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, who lost the governor’s race to Rick Scott in 2010. In 2014, the Democrats’ best hope was a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, former Gov. Charlie Crist, who lost to Scott.

Former state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, a Democrat who lost the state attorney general race to Republican Pam Bondi in 2010, said he hasn’t take a side in the Senate race. But he doesn’t view Grayson as too controversial to run.

“I think Grayson is a very smart guy,” Gelber said. “He really does fight for income equality, rule of law and social justice issues. I think he is a very legitimate voice in Florida — there is no reason to disqualify him because he happens to string together some very digestible quotes.”

But some Democrats see Murphy as the safer choice. Murphy has proven his crossover appeal in his own district, one of the few in the state in which registration is closely matched between the parties. In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Romney won the district with 52 percent of the vote.

Some Democrats see Murphy’s young age and temperament as a plus, and fear that Grayson could turn off some moderate voters.

Murphy “is an opportunity to get somebody in who can spend decades in the Senate,” said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who endorsed Murphy. “We take safe picks and we always come up a little short, but I’m not ready to go in the opposite direction. There is too much of an opportunity this year. This is one of those national races — it is going to get national attention, national minds helping craft a campaign. It’s different from a governor’s race.”