Rubio faces Trump-like challenger in primary

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Only one person stands in the way of Marco Rubio emerging from August’s Senate primary victorious — and on paper, he looks a lot like Donald Trump.  

Millionaire Carlos Beruff has endorsed Trump for president; he’s espoused some of the same controversial beliefs; they both have allies in Florida Gov. Rick Scott; and neither has been afraid to pour their personal fortunes into political campaigns. 

{mosads}And while the Florida Republican’s decision to reverse course and run for reelection this week all but cleared the field and made him the heavy favorite, Beruff has refused to go quietly. 

“The voters of Florida can reelect Washington’s candidate, who has consistently failed to do the job they hired him to do and won’t commit to serving a full six-year term. Or they can make a change,” Beruff said in a statement Friday. 

“Do you want a Senator who puts politics and their own ambition first? Or do you want a Senator who puts Florida first?” 

His decision not to leave the race means Florida’s junior senator returns home for another match-up against a first-time politician as he fights for his political future.  

“This race has been transformed in a matter of days,” said Adam Goodman, a Florida GOP strategist who advised Rep. David Jolly, one of the Republicans to step aside in the Senate race for Rubio. 

“Carlos Beruff has been unruffled and Marco is trying to launch his third act. In a year where the unpredictable has become the expected, this scenario plays right to that script.” 

The political neophyte, who lacks the name recognition or exposure of Trump, has embraced the same outsider persona worn well on Trump, who plunged the final knife into a staggering Rubio in Florida’s Republican presidential primary. 

The 58-year-old real estate developer from the state’s west coast has repeatedly cast Rubio as politically motivated and has driven home his direct approach in television ads. 

“The experts want me to read a bunch of political crap off this teleprompter,” he said in an ad released in April, well before Rubio’s entry. “Here’s what I have to say: Obama is a disaster and Washington politicians are worthless.” 

“How about we take our country back and put America first?” he added, a line reminiscent of a Trump speech.  

Like Trump, he’ll look to attack Rubio from the right. 

He doubled down on Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration by calling to include “anybody from the Middle East” except Israel, long before Trump made a similar call. And Beruff received flack for referring to President Obama as an “animal.” 

Beruff has relied on deep ties to Scott to help boost his campaign. The similarities are clear: Scott mounted his own out-of-nowhere bid for the governor’s mansion in 2010 running an outsider, largely self-funded, bid. 

A handful of former Scott campaign staffers have joined Beruff’s staff in the hopes of finding similar success with the Scott playbook, and the governor has repeatedly praised Beruff, although he has not formally endorsed him. The rest of the Republican establishment, on the other hand, has hitched their wagons to Rubio. 

“It’s not just Rick Scott in 2010. He may have broken the mold, but you look at Marco Rubio 2010, Rick Scott 2014, Donald Trump 2016; voters in Florida are inclined, maybe more than in other states, to at least consider, and in these cases, to vote for the outsider,” a Beruff aide told The Hill.   

“It’s not a foreign concept to us to be running in a race like this.” 

Beruff’s deep pockets have allowed him to make a bevy of campaign donations to local, state, congressional and presidential candidates — more than 730 donations totaling $1 million since 2002, according to the Tampa Bay Times. 

One of his biggest benefactors is his biggest supporter: Scott, to whom the Times pinned $24,000 in campaign donations and $75,000 in donations to his political action committee from Beruff.

Beruff’s ties could be used to push back at his outsider message, just as GOP presidential candidates tried to use Trump’s donations against him.  

Rubio hasn’t directly engaged with Beruff yet, but he chided him in an interview with Politico for backing former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist during Rubio’s 2010 Senate bid. 

There’s no question that Rubio is the heavy favorite, but Beruff’s wealth gives him the opportunity to make a splash. He has already spent $4 million on the race, a large chunk of which was spent on statewide ad buys aimed at building up his name identification. 

The Times also reported that Beruff told staff he’d spend up to $15 million more to keep pace with Rubio.

While the campaign wouldn’t confirm the exact number, his aide told The Hill that Beruff is willing to spend “whatever is necessary to see this through.” 

The winner moves on to face either Patrick Murphy or Alan Grayson, the House members sparring in the Democratic primary, in what promises to be one of the most expensive races in the country.  

Even with a mountain of cash to make him competitive — Rubio spent $21.6 million in his 2010 campaign — Beruff has a lot of work to do. 

An early June Mason-Dixon poll found him topping the field before Rubio entered the race. But that same poll showed that three-quarters of Florida Republicans wanted Rubio, who vowed to retire from the Senate when he launched his presidential campaign, to jump back in. 

More than half of likely Republican primary voters recognized Beruff’s name in that poll, a strong showing for a political newcomer. 

But experts believe he’ll have to continue to blanket the state to stay competitive while fighting to grab attention during the dog days of summer before the Aug. 30 primary.  

“At this point, he’s still somewhat of a regional candidate, known best in one of the key markets of Tampa-St. Petersburg, the largest in terms of registered voters,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.  

“But the start of school, the start of football season … even if you flood the airwaves, how many people are paying attention?” 

That’s not going to be a problem for Rubio, who has not only run for statewide office before, but also set up shop in the state just a few months ago for the last stand of his presidential bid. 

And while Trump showed that voters are willing to buck Rubio, it remains to be seen whether Beruff, without Trump’s cult of personality, can catch lightning in a bottle. 

“He’s up against someone who is obviously very skilled, very good on his feet, very savvy, and will have a lot of people serving as surrogates,” strategist Goodman said.  

“Right now, Carlos Beruff is an unproven commodity.”

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