LAKELAND, Fla.—Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) easily brushed aside three party rivals in her Aug. 23 Democratic primary and has raised more than $47 million in her campaign to unseat Florida’s two-term Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
The three-term congressional representative and former Orlando Police Chief has a $10 million fundraising advantage over Rubio and, with poll numbers that show an ever-tightening race, including one where she is actually leading, some analysts have Demings tabbed as a November upset pick.
To add injury to incumbent insult, the day after she cruised to her easy primary win, Demings joined four other Democratic U.S. Senate candidates running for seats now held by Republicans in forming a joint “Flippable Five Fund.”
Other “Flippable Five Fund” recipients:
- Former state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley in her race against Republican state Rep. Ted Budd to succeed retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in North Carolina;
- Wisconsin Democrat Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in his bid to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.);
- Pennsylvania Democrat Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in his campaign against Republican TV doctor Mehmet Oz to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.);
- Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan’s (D-Ohio) election against Republican J.D. Vance to succeed the retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
Demings’s fundraising prowess, an Aug. 8–12 University of North Florida (UNF) survey of 1,534 likely voters that had her up 48 to 44 percent, and the sheer gall of Democrats placing his seat among the “flippable five,” has Rubio raising alarm and, hopefully, money.
“This is a disaster,” Rubio said in an Aug. 22 campaign appeal, noting he’s particularly upset because “polls show me losing to a former Trump impeachment manager.”
Of course, while urgency is a money mover and Demings—a 27-year career law enforcement officer widely regarded as a moderate—is expected to give Rubio a competitive race, the incumbent’s dire fund-raising pitch belies the fact that he remains the clear favorite in a state where there are 200,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.
While the UNF poll has Demings leading by 4 percentage points, it is an outlier among eight voter surveys published since July 9. Two—both conducted by progressive groups—indicate the race is even but five show Rubio leading, including two Center Street PAC polls posted after the UNF survey where Rubio is up by 7 percent and 11 percent.
Rubio’s campaign in its Aug. 3 Federal Elections Commission (FEC) filing reported it had raised nearly $36.8 million, more than $10 million less than his challenger, but had $15 million in cash on hand, nearly twice the $8.818 million Demings had in her war chest as the stretch run to November begins.
Rubio, 51, a Miami native who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 after serving eight years in the Florida House, including as House Speaker from 2006 to 2008, is putting that $15 million to immediate use in launching $1.3 million in airtime unveiling a two-pronged strategy in attacking Demings in “negative” ads while touting his record as a proven, efficacious lawmaker who can get things done for his constituents in “positive” ads that never mention his opponent.
The first of his two new 30-second spots slams Demings for a voting record that aligns “100 percent” with Biden administration initiatives, her ties to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—including appointment as Trump impeachment manager—alleged disinterest in border security, and cherry-picked comments that appear to be supportive of Black Lives Matters protestors.
“Demings praised defunding the police,” maintains the Rubio ad, which has drawn a furious rebuttal from Demings, who in her own campaign ads calls the notion of “defunding” police “crazy.”
“Marco Rubio is terrified of Chief Demings’ growing momentum in this race, and he’s continuing to tell desperate lies,” Demings’s campaign said in a statement. “His lies can’t distract from the fact that this race is about one thing: a choice between a career politician who doesn’t show up for work and a 27-year law enforcement officer with a proven record of delivering for Florida. Chief Demings has always been laser-focused on keeping our communities safe and lowering costs for Florida’s families, and she’ll continue to show up for Floridians in the U.S. Senate.”
Rubio’s second new TV ad touts his performance as a 20-year veteran of the legislative process, first in the Florida House and then in the U.S. Senate where the Center for Effective Lawmaking has consistently listed Rubio as the most effective Republican senator.
The ad cites his effectiveness in getting “assistance to veterans and soldiers,” noting he was the lead sponsor of the recently adopted PACT Act, which expands coverage for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. It also discusses his hands-on participation in getting the U.S. Housing & Urban Development Department to rehabilitate a Jacksonville community and his introduction and lobbying for the bill to create the Paycheck Protection Program that helped businesses nationwide keep workers on payrolls during the pandemic.
“Our new ad — ‘I get things done,’ including: Taking on slum lords; PPP that helped save small business; Benefits for veterans suffering the effects of toxic burn pits,” Rubio campaign director Elizabeth Gregory said in an Aug. 25 Twitter post. “When will the media ask Pelosi puppet Val Demings to name just one achievement in her 6 years in D.C.?”
In an election that should top $100 million in spending by the two candidates, the opening rounds indicate Rubio is confident he’s got the numbers and record to prevail but is braced for a competitive challenge by a well-financed smooth campaigner in what could be a costly fall fracas.