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Rubio and Demings to spar in only debate matchup of under-the-radar Florida Senate race

<i>Reuters/Getty Images</i><br/>Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democrat Rep. Val Demings will debate for the first and only time Tuesday.
Reuters/Getty Images
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democrat Rep. Val Demings will debate for the first and only time Tuesday.

By Steve Contorno, CNN

With three weeks until Election Day, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democrat Rep. Val Demings will debate for the first and only time Tuesday, putting a spotlight, at least for an hour, on a US Senate race that has flown under the radar.

Beyond providing a venue for Demings to shift the political winds that until now appear to have favored Rubio, the debate may also be her last, best chance to convince her party that Florida is a worthwhile investment for its final push to maintain control of the US Senate. While national Democrats and their allies celebrated when Demings announced she would challenge Rubio, they have offered little by way of reinforcements ever since, leaving the three-term congresswoman to largely fend for herself against a seasoned campaigner and one of the Republican Party’s most recognizable figures.

At a recent campaign stop in Tampa, Demings acknowledged the uphill climb she faces, telling CNN of the race, “Of course it’s hard, but it’s not impossible.” She said her own fundraising, which had surpassed Rubio by $20 million as of September 30, showed voters in Florida and around the country are “willing to stand up and fight for what they need, not just allow the same old broken record to be played over and over again, with pitiful results.”

But her campaign coffers are dwindling, and at the start of October, Rubio had more cash on hand: $9.6 million to Demings’ $6.6 million.

Asked about the party’s support, Demings replied, “My parents gave me the resources that I need to win,” a nod to the work ethic she said was instilled by her upbringing.

Much of the Democratic Party’s attention and resources have focused on a handful of battlegrounds that appear more tightly contested than Florida, where Republicans have seized momentum with such vigor that some are questioning whether the Sunshine State remains a purple battleground. Republicans entered September with 270,000 more registered voters than Democrats — a 600,000 voter swing from the last time Rubio was on the ballot six years ago.

That Republican enthusiasm has been credited to the state’s hard-charging governor, Ron DeSantis, and its most famous resident, ex-President Donald Trump, but Rubio has benefited from it nevertheless. Despite running a low-key campaign, polls suggest the Republican incumbent entered the final stretch of the race with a comfortable lead.

From this position, Rubio has faced head-on two contentious issues others in his party have ducked heading into midterms: the future of abortion access and Trump’s legal troubles.

Rubio cosponsored a Senate bill introduced by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham that would ban abortion in every state at 15 weeks, with exceptions for abortions required to protect the life of the mother, and if the woman becomes pregnant through rape or incest. The support for a national abortion ban came just as Demings was already airing an ad critical of Rubio’s position.

And in the days after the US Department of Justice seized classified documents at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, Rubio, who serves as vice chairman of the Senate select committee on intelligence, defended the former President and dismissed concerns about Trump’s handling of state secrets as a “fight over the storage of documents.”

Rubio, through his campaign, declined a request for an interview, but in a statement, spokeswoman Elizabeth Gregory said the senator on Tuesday “will highlight his record of getting things done for Florida and shine a light on Congresswoman Val Demings’ blind support for Democrats’ agenda and her failure to deliver results for Floridians.”

Rubio reversal

When Rubio ended his campaign for president in 2016, DeSantis — then a relatively unknown congressman — bowed out of the Republican race for US Senate so Rubio, the Florida GOP’s senior statesman, could run again for his job.

Six years later, Rubio remains the veteran, but he is clearly behind DeSantis in the state’s Republican pecking order. It is now DeSantis who commands crowds of people across the country that once showed up for Rubio, who Time magazine in 2013 dubbed “the Republican Savior.” When the Republican ticket toured the state after the August primary, DeSantis headlined and Rubio was the warm-up act.

The reversal in political standing is reflected in the GOP enthusiasm for the two candidates. While DeSantis approached nearly universal support from Republicans in a Spectrum News/Siena College poll of likely voters taken last month — 93% — Rubio’s favorability didn’t eclipse 80%. DeSantis polled higher than Rubio across nearly every demographic. Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, has typically enjoyed higher support than most Republicans among Latino voters, but DeSantis has the edge there, too.

Don Levy, director of the Siena Research Institute, said the numbers suggest Rubio would be facing a tougher reelection fight were it not for the energy DeSantis brings to the ballot. DeSantis is leading Democrat Charlie Crist in the race for governor 49% to 41%, a similar margin as the Senate race, the poll found.

“Rubio’s favorability shows that he’s not really ascendant at this point in time,” Levy said. “But it’s hard to imagine there are going to be a lot of Desantis-Demings voters. Even if the Republican voter is not sold on Rubio, he still has a R next to his name.”

JC Martin, the longtime chairman of the Polk County Republican Party, said Rubio doesn’t connect with the grassroots the way he used to and that is driving the enthusiasm gap between him and DeSantis.

“Rubio doesn’t get out to the localities as much as he should. I’ve told him that myself,” Martin said. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

No money, more problems

Heading into the summer of 2022, Florida’s US Senate race looked like it could materialize into a marquee matchup of two political heavyweights. Demings, a former impeachment manager for House Democrats who two years ago made Joe Biden’s shortlist for a running mate, entered the race in April and immediately announced herself as a serious political challenger by outraising Rubio in her first three months as a candidate.

Getting Demings into the race was a shot in the arm for a state Democratic Party that has struggled in recent years to recruit strong candidates. Her backstory — born in Jacksonville, the daughter of a maid and a janitor, a former Orlando police chief married to a former sheriff — became bullet points in campaign ads and helped her attract national attention from the likes of The Atlantic and Vanity Fair. The latter featured Demings this summer in a favorable profile accompanied with pictures of the Democratic congresswoman riding her red Harley-Davidson.

But despite aggressive early spending and beating Rubio to the airwaves, many Floridians are still learning who Demings is. The Spectrum News/Siena College poll of likely voters from last month showed 44% of respondents didn’t know enough about Demings to say whether they had a favorable opinion of her.

“Demings to us appeared as though she was still introducing herself,” Levy said.

In addition to the headwinds she faces in Florida, Demings is fighting to distance herself from corners of the Democratic Party that have at times pushed for governments to reduce funding for police departments. As a former beat cop turned police chief, Demings offered Democrats hope that she could neutralize Republican messaging on crime, but it has not deterred Rubio from running ads tying her to anti-law enforcement sentiments in her party.

As recently as this month, Demings defensively ran ads to push back against “defund the police” and her campaign was amplifying coverage that emphasized her “independence” from Democrats on the issue.

“I do think it’s interesting that a couple of people in Congress talked about defunding the police. The overwhelming majority of people in Congress have not said that,” she said in Tampa. “If anybody who wants to run with the defund the police narrative bothered to talk to people in the most vulnerable communities, they would tell you, we don’t want to defund the police.”

Demings said Tuesday’s debate will offer voters a choice between a candidate “who has protected and served their community, wasn’t afraid to do that … or someone who has been in elected office since 1998.” But there isn’t much airtime reserved for her to pound that message into the minds of Floridians once the debate ends.

After drawing over $50 million in ad spending up to this point, Florida has fallen off the Senate midterm map dramatically. The race is set to see less than $8 million in total ad spending by both parties over the final three weeks, according to the latest data provided by the advertising tracker AdImpact. And tellingly, no outside groups from either party have booked airtime over the critical home stretch.

The spending in Florida pales to the $53 million in ad time reserved for the coming weeks in neighboring Georgia, and it falls far short of the 8-figure sums ready to be spent in Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Arizona, states where it is far cheaper to advertise than notoriously expensive Florida.

Ione Townsend, the chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party, couldn’t recall a year when statewide candidates had less support from national groups and parties.

“By not getting involved in 2022, they’re sending a message that they’re passing on us in 2024,” said Townsend. “And they may have already done that. We know that there has not been a lot of money coming into Florida. We’re all feeling that.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated parameters of Lindsey Graham’s proposed 15-week abortion ban. It would provide exceptions in cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. This story has also been updated to correct the spelling of Graham’s first name.

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