TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Democrats have their sights set on flipping Florida’s U.S. Senate seat up for election this year, as they try to retake a majority of the Senate.
But it’s been a bumpy primary campaign for Democrats, regardless of Republican incumbent Marco Rubio’s late-breaking decision to run again.
The Democrats’ Aug. 30 primary is dominated by two congressmen with vastly different political approaches: Patrick Murphy, a centrist backed by the White House, and Alan Grayson, a longtime darling of Bernie Sanders-style progressives who is loathed by the party establishment.
Also in the field are: Pam Keith, a labor attorney from Miami; real estate developer Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente who lives in Orlando; and personal injury attorney Reginald Luster of Jacksonville.
The winner will take on the top vote-getter in the Republican primary, which includes Rubio, who decided in June to seek another term in the Senate after losing a bid for the White House.
The betting money in the Democratic primary leans toward Murphy, at least in part because of the White House star power mixed with an expected low primary turnout that will be dominated by voters who are older and more likely to back the establishment candidate.
Any possibility of a surprise in the primary may also be dimmed as the top contenders have turned off many reliable voters without attracting new people to the polls, said Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida.
“It’s a just a race that has lost a lot of punch,” MacManus said. “Each side (the Murphy and Grayson campaigns) has been able to well-establish the flaws of the other. Initially, people thought it was going to be highly competitive. But as people are exposed to the shortcomings of the opponents, people just aren’t so interested anymore.”
University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett wouldn’t rule out a “comeback” by Grayson. But he noted Grayson has lost a lot of ground because of domestic-abuse allegations by his ex-wife. Those allegations emerged after Murphy faced allegations that he had inflated his resume.
“It seems that the allegations of abuse against Grayson took the wind out of his campaign sails and allowed Murphy to get off the ropes after it seemed the meme about Murphy exaggerating his accomplishments would sink his campaign,” Jewett said.
Grayson has repeatedly denied the domestic-abuse allegations. But Murphy used the issue as a justification for not debating Grayson this month.
Grayson, while talking to reporters this month on a tour bus prior to a campaign stop in Tampa, called Murphy’s reasoning to back out of the debate as a “lame excuse.”
“The pro is that the public sees that he is a coward,” said Grayson, who often appears to be on crusade against Murphy and the party’s Senate leadership. “He’s been exposed as the corporate shill and faker that he really is.”
Murphy, whose campaign appears to be focused more on Rubio, has avoided engaging in a verbal confrontation with Grayson.
“I’m focused on my election,” Murphy said while campaigning recently with Vice President Joe Biden in Tallahassee. “And I think Congressman Grayson’s lost quite a bit of credibility, and I think voters have a very stark difference here in the two candidates.”
Born in Miami, Murphy, 33, grew up in Key Largo. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Miami, then passed the certified public accountant exam in Colorado in 2009, a year before going to work at his father’s construction business.
Murphy, in his first campaign, defeated Republican tea party favorite U.S. Rep. Allen West in 2012 for the Republican-leaning Congressional 18 seat that includes St. Lucie, Martin and northern Palm Beach counties. Murphy was re-elected with 60 percent of the vote in 2014.
Murphy’s been ranked among the most conservative House Democrats but has also received praise for his attention to constituent services and for backing water bills that seek to help clean and protect the Indian River Lagoon.
But this year Murphy has been on the defensive for having been registered a Republican prior to running for office, a $2,300 donation to the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney in 2007 and votes in Congress on matters that went against the positions of liberals and the White House. Those votes dealt with issues such the Keystone XL pipeline and the creation of a congressional committee after the 2012 Benghazi attack to investigate former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
While Republicans may not openly admit it, they appear to prefer facing Grayson in the November general election.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and a group known as the Senate Leadership Fund have relentlessly attacked Murphy through emails that highlight each gaffe and negative news report.
Grayson, 58, was born in the Bronx. He worked his way through Harvard, earning an economics degree in 1978 and a law degree five years later. He clerked at the Colorado Supreme Court and the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.
His portfolio grew — he’s been ranked among the wealthiest members of Congress — as president of a New Jersey-based company created to lower the cost of international phone calls and later as a trial attorney.
Grayson, who lost a congressional primary in 2006, won the then-District 8 seat in Central Florida in 2008, defeating Republican four-term incumbent Ric Keller by 4 percentage points. Grayson, knocked out of office two years later by current U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, returned to Washington in 2012 by easily winning the newly created Democratic-leaning District 9.
Grayson, who prolifically files and pushes bills, made headlines by trying to restrict salaries of Wall Street executives as their companies were bailed out by the federal government in the recent recession. However, Grayson has faced questions about a Cayman Island hedge fund that he has said is a “family investment partnership” that abides by the directives of securities lawyers.
Also, Grayson’s tendency to speak his mind, such as describing the GOP’s health care plan as “don’t get sick,” has drawn admiration from progressives but scorn from both sides of the political aisle.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has called on Grayson to drop out of the Senate race over allegation that he used his position as a sitting member of Congress to solicit investments into the hedge fund, which would violate federal law and House rules.
This year’s campaign took a unique turn in May when Grayson married Dena Minning, a physician and medical researcher whom he had been dating and who is now running for his House seat as Dena Grayson.
Topping the rest of the field is Keith, a labor attorney who was a judge advocate while serving in the U.S. Navy, and has worked in Washington, D.C. and as a senior labor and employment counsel for Florida Power & Light.
“It is my belief that winning Florida (in the presidential race) is going to turn on African-American votes, on Latino votes, and women, and I’m the only candidate that actually helps our presidential nominee in all three categories,” Keith said while campaigning in May. “There are some who would question whether Alan Grayson helps in those communities. And I doubt anybody makes a straight-faced argument that Patrick Murphy puts anybody at the table not already coming.”
The News Service of Florida’s Jim Turner contributed to this report.