Rubio’s Departure to Put Florida Senate Seat in Play

Hovver logoBy Arian Campo-Flores, WSJ

His decision to run for president sets off scramble to recruit GOP candidates for a costly race in 2016

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida laughs as he is surrounded by media at a Republican presidential campaign event in Manchester, N.H. in April.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida laughs as he is surrounded by media at a Republican presidential campaign event in Manchester, N.H. in April.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s decision to run for president rather than seek re-election has put his Republican seat at risk, setting off a scramble in the GOP to recruit candidates and likely forcing the party to pump millions of dollars more into what promises to be a costly, high-profile race.

Retaining the seat is crucial if the GOP hopes to keep control of the Senate in 2016. Though the party holds a 54-to-46 advantage over Democrats, it must defend 24 seats next year—seven in states that President Barack Obama won twice, including Florida—while Democrats only need to safeguard 10.

“I’m obviously not thrilled that Marco is not running again in Florida, but I think we can hold Florida,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told The Wall Street Journal recently.

Yet many of the leading potential candidates favored by GOP donors and strategists have announced in recent weeks that they aren’t running. First Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney general, ruled out a campaign, followed by state chief financial officer Jeff Atwater, former House Speaker Will Weatherford and, most recently, Rep. Tom Rooney.

UT Pan“We’re now getting into the tier of candidates with little name ID statewide,” said Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant in Gainesville. That means a potentially drawn-out primary contest, he said.

Though Mr. Patton said he expects the eventual nominee to have little difficulty raising money, the National Republican Senatorial Committee will probably have to spend much more than it would have if Mr. Rubio had run for re-election. That could make less committee money available for other Senate contests. “It shrinks the map for us,” Mr. Patton said. “It probably takes a seat or two out of play.”

Still, Adam Goodman, a Republican media strategist at the Victory Group in Tampa, said a competitive primary is “actually something to look forward to” and could produce a GOP star.

National Republicans are confident their party will prevail. “Florida Republicans have consistently demonstrated a proven capacity to win statewide races, and we look forward to electing another strong Republican like Sen. Rubio,” said a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Democrats confront their own potential worries. Though U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy announced his candidacy in March and quickly nailed down endorsements from prominent Democrats, he has encountered resistance from some liberals in the party. They question whether Mr. Murphy, a former Republican with a centrist voting record, will pursue their interests, such as guarding against benefit cuts for Social Security recipients or increased out-of-pocket expenses for those on Medicare.

“We want a champion who will fight for the progressive agenda,” said Susan Smith, president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida. She said the group has doubts about Mr. Murphy and resents the way some party leaders quickly coalesced behind him.

“I consider myself right where most Floridians are—fiscally responsible and socially progressive,” Mr. Murphy said, adding that he supports “core Democratic principles” like a comprehensive immigration overhaul and a higher minimum wage.

Some state Democrats are rallying behind the potential candidacy of Rep. Alan Grayson, known for his advocacy of liberal causes, but also for sometimes controversial remarks, such as calling Republicans “knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.”

“I’m probably going to run,” Mr. Grayson said, adding that he plans to make a final decision in the next two months. “I think I’m the strongest candidate with regard to all the main voting blocs,” including African-Americans, Hispanics and Jews, he said. His entrance could set up a bruising primary contest.

On the GOP side, those who say they are considering a run include Reps. Ron DeSantis, a tea-party favorite; Jeff Miller, a conservative known for his work on veterans’ issues; and David Jolly, a former lobbyist who won a closely watched special election last year in a swing House district. “It’s a real old-fashioned primary, with no perceived front-runner,” said Brian Ballard, a leading Republican fundraiser in the state. But “a primary brings you the best candidate. If we have a strong nominee, we’ll be in good shape no matter what.”

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