- Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is expected to face off against Rep. Val Demings for a US Senate seat.
- Rubio is running at a time when many are wondering whether Florida is even a battleground anymore.
- Demings is traveling the state to make her pitch to an increasingly conservative electorate.
MIAMI — Sen. Marco Rubio's 2016 presidential run gave him national name recognition. Then, after complaining for years about Congress' ineffectiveness, the Florida Republican threw himself into his Senate work.
He can now tick off a list of accomplishments. There's his push to double the child tax credit and focus on expanding care for veterans. He secured Everglades funding. And he cowrote the Paycheck Protection Program that sent big money to small businesses at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rubio is also one of Congress' go-to experts on foreign policy, and two years ago he landed a coveted role as the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee.
And entering the teeth of election season, Rubio, 50, is wearing it all like armor as he seeks a third term.
"I don't think anybody that's ever served the state of Florida in the Senate has gotten more done than I have over the last five years," Rubio told Insider.
But Republicans know better than to take Florida for granted.
Ahead of the state's primary in August, a clear Democratic frontrunner to challenge Rubio has emerged: Rep. Val Demings.
In Demings, Democrats see a star — a Black woman trailblazer who spent 27 years in law enforcement, including as the chief of police in Orlando.
At a recent campaign event with union members in Miami, Demings, 65, appeared confident as she wove stories about her life into a narrative about the need to raise wages, increase voting access, and make healthcare more affordable.
"We are fighting for the very soul of this country," Demings told a riveted audience. "We are fighting for the Constitution, the rule of law, and our democracy."
As if that's not enough, Demings would also carry into November the burden of her party's national aspirations.
Florida's US Senate race will be crucial for Democrats' hope — a dwindling one, some liberals concede — of retaining their bare-bones Senate majority. Floridians have dealt blows to Democrats over three election cycles, leading many to question whether the state Barack Obama won twice can even be called a battleground anymore.
As of late 2021, Florida's registered Republicans outnumbered its Democrats.
Demings could be Democrats' last, best shot at winning statewide office in Florida not only in 2022 but for the foreseeable future.
Demings is still introducing herself to Florida
Polling from the University of North Florida suggests Rubio's reelection prospects are strong. And he enjoys a national backdrop where Democrats could suffer at ballot boxes nationwide amid President Joe Biden's steadily sinking job-approval ratings, now in the low 40s, according to Gallup.
One of the biggest tasks Demings has before her is to become a household name.
To do that, and to introduce herself to prospective voters, she's conducting campaign events all over Florida.
Born Valdez Venita Butler, the youngest of seven children of a janitor and a maid, Demings was the first in her family to graduate from college. She briefly worked as a social worker in Jacksonville before launching a career in Orlando law enforcement. After losing a US House run in 2012 and dropping out of the mayoral race in Orange County, Florida, she won a US House seat in Florida's 10th District in 2016.
—Val Demings (@valdemings) February 11, 2022
At the union meeting in Miami, Demings stood at a table without any notes before her. She took dramatic pauses between sentences. At times, the 20-person audience seated around her even finished her sentences.
Her pitch to voters is straightforward: She overcame enormous odds to realize the American dream, and she wants to be a senator to create more opportunities for others to realize it, too.
Once Demings had finished, Elizabeth Judd, a community leader and member of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, told her she's enthralled by her candidacy.
"It is of the utmost urgency that you replace little Rubio," Judd said, invoking Donald Trump's nickname for Rubio when they were both vying for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
Wes Hodge, the chair of the Orange County Democratic Party, who has worked with Demings at political events, predicted that speaking all over Florida would be a particularly effective strategy for Demings. Hodge said he always puts himself after her in a speaker lineup.
"The worst place to speak is after Congresswoman Demings," Hodge said, laughing. "I always go, 'I don't wish the spot on anybody, so I'll fall on the sword.'
"When she is done speaking, the room is ready to do whatever she wants."
But it'll take more than rhetoric to win Florida, a state of more than 21.5 million that's growing increasingly conservative.
Both nationally and in Florida, Demings lacks the public profile Rubio so enjoys.
Outside her Orlando-centric home district, in places such as Gainesville or Pensacola, Demings isn't a household name.
And though she's known for her authoritative questioning of witnesses during congressional hearings, she has sometimes dodged publicity by avoiding reporters as she slips in and out of votes on Capitol Hill.
Demings' esteem within Democratic circles has, however, steadily grown, starting with her work as a House impeachment manager during Trump's first Senate trial in 2020.
Though the GOP-controlled Senate acquitted Trump, her performance at the trial shone so brightly that it catapulted her to the short list of candidates for Biden's running mate. Demings seemed to embrace the possibility of being vice president, even if Biden ultimately selected Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
So how does Demings appeal to voters beyond a dwindling base of loyal Democrats?
In part by being who she is.
Demings speaks openly about race, inequality, and injustice in America, but her campaign also unabashedly plays up her experience in law enforcement. Demings' husband, Jerry Demings, the mayor of Orange County, is also a former sheriff.
It's hardly an accident that Demings is often billed as "Chief Demings" instead of "Congresswoman Demings" in congressional and campaign materials.
It's a recognition that her long background in law enforcement — where she said she oversaw a 40% reduction in violent crime — where she could help inoculate against Republican attacks seeking to cast all Democrats as supportive of progressives' unpopular movement to defund the police. It could also help her appeal to center-right independents who aren't enthralled with Rubio.
—Val Demings (@valdemings) April 30, 2022
"This is the candidate Rubio didn't want to run against," said Eric Johnson, the president of Johnson Strategies, who advised Rubio's 2016 Democratic opponent, Patrick Murphy.
"Her profile is literally the best," said Joshua Wolf, another Murphy campaign vet whose firm, AL Media Strategies, is working with the Demings campaign. "She has this incredible ability to motivate the base."
In August's Democratic primary, which Demings is expected to easily win, she faces seven competitors, including former Rep. Alan Grayson.
All the while, Demings' staunchest allies say she has to keep introducing herself to Floridians.
In a University of North Florida poll conducted in February, 17% of voters said they were undecided on a Rubio-Demings matchup — a positive statistic for someone who must grow beyond her base in order to win.
Vincent Adejumo, a professor of African American studies at the University of Florida in Gainesville, told Insider that to win, Demings would need to receive overwhelming support from Black voters and bring over white centrists.
He added that she would also need to siphon off Latinos from Rubio. But the senator's personal profile helps with that demographic: Rubio speaks fluent Spanish, having grown up in Miami as the child of working-class Cuban immigrants. He has a critical advantage in the state's most populous county, Miami-Dade, where he lives and where roughly 70% of residents are Latino.
A nationalized Senate race
One major factor working in Demings' favor is that she's raising a ton of money. Her campaign recently announced a $3 million Hispanic outreach effort.
During the first quarter of this year, Demings raised $10 million compared with Rubio's $5.7 million, according to federal campaign-finance disclosures.
That's serious cash. Of everyone running for a Senate seat in 2022, Demings has so far raised the fifth-most, at nearly $30.8 million. (Rubio is right behind her, at $30.2 million.)
Outside attention is pouring in, too. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is pumping $30 million into nine states it considers battlegrounds for Democrats, including Florida. And Florida Democrats have committed to spending $15 million to increase Democratic voter turnout up and down the ballot.
Super PACs — political committees that may raise and spend unlimited sums of money, fueled by megadonors with no particular tie to Florida — are also expected to inject millions of dollars into the race.
Given this, a Rubio-Demings showdown is almost certain to rank among the most expensive races in the 2022 midterms, set to soar well into nine figures by the time a winner is declared.
This doesn't guarantee Demings' success — in 2020, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, now the minority leader, trounced his Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath, despite McGrath outraising him. But major financial resources are a prerequisite if Demings has any realistic hope of toppling Rubio.
"That just tells you how viable she is," Juan Marcos Vilar, the executive director of Alianza for Progress, a group that works to motivate Democratic Latino voters, said of Demings. "If she wasn't viable, it wouldn't generate that level of investment on both sides. It's going to be a clash of titans."
It also suggests that Democrats aren't ready to cede Florida to the GOP.
Democratic leaders often note that, yes, Florida voted for Trump over both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020 — but it has also voted for liberal policy staples such as implementing a $15 minimum wage, legalizing medical marijuana, restoring voting rights for people found guilty of felonies, and spending billions of dollars on environmental conservation.
All these factors show why Republicans, too, are not complacent in the race.
Consider that the Republican National Committee just launched what it's calling "Operation Red" in Florida to knock on thousands of doors and make phone calls on behalf of Republicans including Rubio.
Republicans also say they aren't scared by Demings' strong fundraising or her potential with independent voters. They contend that Rubio's name recognition is worth its weight in gold — literally. Other candidates have to buy that recognition through TV, radio, and digital ads in a state with a huge population and multiple major media markets.
"Democrats have a weak bench, and they feel Val Demings is the best they got," Helen Aguirre Ferré, the executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, told Insider. "They will have to spend a lot of money to sell her image, and good luck to them, because Val Demings doesn't have a record that's worthy of winning a Senate seat."
Ana Carbonell, a top GOP operative in Florida who owns the public-policy firm The Factor, said the money itself would do little without an understanding of Florida's voting blocs.
"Unless you have a keen understanding of the communities throughout the state and the nuances throughout the state, the money doesn't mean anything if you don't have an understanding on how to use it," she said.
"Democrats have proven time and time again that they just don't get it," she added.
'Pelosi puppet' versus 'Missing Marco'
Because Demings is still introducing herself to voters, Rubio, whose name recognition is all but universal in Florida, has space to define his opponent.
For example, Rubio has called Demings a "Pelosi puppet" on Twitter, referring to her tendency to side with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on votes.
—Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) December 15, 2021
When asked how he stands apart from Demings, Rubio said his office gets high ratings for constituent service. Elizabeth Gregory, a Rubio campaign spokeswoman, said Demings had "zero substantive accomplishments to show for her time in Washington."
Democrats' bottom-line message is to cast Rubio as a political lifer devoted more to his party and his own advancement than to voters.
"Marco Rubio lacks the integrity to put Floridians before the special interest donors that tell him what to do," said Christian Slater, a spokesman for the Demings campaign.
The Demings' campaign has contrasted the two lawmakers' votes, pummeling Rubio over voting against Democrats' $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package and the bipartisan infrastructure bill to help fix Florida's roads and bridges.
Florida Democrats have been recycling an attack that dates back to Rubio's 2016 presidential campaign by sending out a "Missing Marco Alert" every time he doesn't attend committee meetings — particularly when he appears on national TV instead.
"He hasn't been around," Manny Diaz, the chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, told Insider in Miami. "You almost sense that he no longer likes the job. His record of showing up to votes and committee meetings is horrendous."
Rubio has said he voted against the spending measures because of concerns about the deficit and inflation. Asked about committee absences, Ferré replied, "Floridians care about results, and Senator Rubio delivers."
Other attacks against Rubio have been similar to those waged against Republicans in other states.
For instance, in recent days Demings has been stumping and fundraising on a promise to codify abortion rights in federal law as the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. Rubio opposes abortion.
The Demings campaign also has sought to tie Rubio to a controversial plan from fellow Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, to force everyone to pay at least some taxes.
While Rubio hasn't supported such a measure, the Demings campaign labeled the plan the "Rubio-Scott Tax Hike" and ran an ad imploring voters to "tell Rubio to take a hike." In turn, the Rubio campaign has accused Demings of "auditioning to be Joe Biden's running mate" when Rubio was working on COVID-19 relief for small businesses.
But the Demings campaign has a tougher task than other Democrats have in going after Rubio. Democrats' wins in Southern states in recent years have come against opponents with serious allegations that were impossible to come back from, such as the financial entanglements of Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in Georgia or the sexual-misconduct allegations against Roy Moore in Alabama.
Rubio isn't especially controversial and by numerous accounts gets along with his colleagues and staffers, who call him by his first name.
And even with Trump, who now lives in Florida, Rubio has managed a balance: He comes across as neither a knee-jerk genuflector nor a scathing critic. Despite their turbulent history — including Rubio's descriptions of Trump as a "con artist" and his comment in 2016 that prompted Trump to defend the size of his genitalia — Rubio scored a coveted Trump endorsement a year ago.
"He has carved out a nice lane for himself to be independent while still being able to speak the language with MAGA, with the tea party, but still have his own brand of what he does," Adejumo said.
To win, Demings can't rely on trashing Trump or tying Rubio to the former president — she must deliver a concise message about how she could improve voters' lives, Adejumo said.
"It can't be a message of 'He's the bogeyman,'" he said. "If that's the strategy, you might as well pack it up."