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Democrats recruit ex-congresswoman to challenge Sen. Rick Scott and test whether Florida is still a battleground

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By Steve Contorno, CNN

(CNN) — Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat who once represented the Miami area in the US House, will run for Senate from Florida, the former congresswoman told CNN, ending a monthslong search by her party for a challenger to Republican Sen. Rick Scott next year.

Democrats, who are defending the lion’s share of competitive Senate seats in 2024, now look toward a rare pickup opportunity as both parties fight for control of the narrowly divided chamber.

“Florida is ready for change,” Mucarsel-Powell said in an interview. “We are living at a moment of time when our country has become so polarized. Our democracy is at stake. Our rights are at stake.”

Mucarsel-Powell was elected to the US House in 2018, winning a swing South Florida district in a wave year for Democrats and becoming the first Ecuadorian American and first South American immigrant elected to Congress. But she lost her seat after just one term in 2020 to Republican Carlos Gimenez as President Donald Trump was carrying her district and the state. She declined to seek a rematch in 2022.

Now, Mucarsel-Powell hopes to challenge Scott in a race that could further shed light on whether Florida should still be considered a swing state. Scott was elected to the Senate in the same year that voters sent Powell to the House, unseating Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by the thinnest of margins – about 10,000 votes out of more than 8 million ballots cast.

Since then, Florida has turned sharply to the right. The number of registered Republicans in the state surpassed Democrats in late 2021, and the chasm has widened to half a million voters. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis sailed to reelection by 19 points last year, just four years after winning office after a recount, and the party now holds every statewide office for the first time since Reconstruction. Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party is rebuilding on the fly in hopes it can convince donors to invest in the state by 2024.

Amid that environment, Democrats have struggled to find a candidate to take on Scott, a former two-term governor and one of the richest members of Congress, who has leaned on his considerable wealth to win three statewide races. Scott, who once harbored ambitions of running for president, announced he would seek reelection earlier this year. He has already campaigned for the past six months when not in Washington, vowing to visit each of the state’s 67 counties before November 2024.

“We’d like to welcome yet another failed congressional candidate to the crowded Democrat primary,” Scott communications director Priscilla Ivasco said in a statement Tuesday. “Former Congresswoman Mucarsel-Powell is a radical socialist who voted 100% of the time with Nancy Pelosi during her short tenure in Congress, which is why the voters of South Florida booted her out of office the first chance they got. Floridians already rejected her once and they will reject her again.”

In Mucarsel-Powell, Democrats are enlisting a seasoned candidate with a compelling back story. She was born in Ecuador and emigrated to the United State at age 14 with her mother. Her father, who stayed behind, was shot and killed outside his home when Mucarsel-Powell was 24. In her lone term in the US House, Mucarsel-Powell made curbing gun violence and helping South American migrants a priority. She joined the gun safety group Giffords as a senior adviser following her congressional loss.

Mucarsel-Powell, a mother of three, including two daughters, said she is further motivated by the sea change in abortion access following the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. That includes Florida’s new law banning abortion after six-weeks, a measure Scott has said he would have signed had it reached his desk when he was governor. (The ban has not yet taken effect amid a separate legal challenge before the state Supreme Court.)

Abortion rights advocates are collecting signatures to force a referendum that would enshrine access to the procedure in Florida’s constitution, which could appear on next year’s ballot alongside Mucarsel-Powell and Scott.

“This is about a woman’s right to privacy, a woman’s right to self-determination,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “Rights that have been enshrined in federal law. Rights that would allow women to have access to reproductive health care.”

Mucarsel-Powell is not the only Democrat looking to take on Scott next year. Other candidates in the Democratic primary include former US Rep. Alan Grayson and Navy veteran Phil Ehr, who unsuccessfully challenged GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz in 2020.

A history of close elections

On paper, the conditions for Scott’s fourth statewide race would appear to be more favorable than any of his previous elections, all decided by 1 point or less. Donors have shied away from Florida after Trump won back-to-back elections there, and it is unclear how much Democrats intend to commit to challenging Scott. CNN previously reported that President Joe Biden’s advisers insist they have not written off the state, emboldened by the deeply conservative agenda DeSantis pursued as he readied his campaign for the White House.

Scott has made life more difficult for himself, though, by clashing with GOP leadership in Washington. He had a tumultuous tenure as chairman of Senate Republicans’ campaign arm for the 2022 cycle, which saw his party fall short of winning back the chamber despite historical trends that suggested Democrats should have lost more seats. His colleagues raised questions about how he spent party resources and his hands-off approach to contested primaries, some of which produced nominees with questionable credentials in seemingly winnable battlegrounds.

Most contentiously, though, Scott released his own multi-point plan for the country, which featured a much-maligned proposal to sunset all federal programs in five years, including Medicare and Social Security. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell quickly distanced the party from the proposal and Scott later backtracked, but not before Biden and Democrats seized on it as campaign fodder.

Scott rebuffed Biden’s and McConnell’s criticism, insisting his blueprint had picked up all the right enemies in Washington. But McConnell suggested that Scott could pay a political price.

“I think it will be a challenge for him to deal with this in his own reelection in Florida, a state with more elderly people than any other state in America,” the GOP leader mused on a Kentucky radio station amid the fallout.

Indeed, Mucarsel-Powell has already signaled she intends to make Scott’s “Rescue America” plan a focal point of her campaign. The opening press release announcing her Senate bid said Scott “wrote a plan to end Social Security and Medicare coverage.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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