Demings raises Democrats' hopes in uphill fight to defeat Rubio

Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsThe Hill's Morning Report - Surging COVID-19 infections loom over US, Olympics Six takeaways: What the FEC reports tell us about the midterm elections Cuba, Haiti pose major challenges for Florida Democrats MORE’s (D-Fla.) expected Senate bid is giving Democrats a rare dose of hope in the race to unseat Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Break glass in case of emergency — but not for climate change Democrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins MORE (R-Fla.), though they acknowledge she’s still likely to face a challenging path to victory.

That Demings is considering a challenge to Rubio came as a surprise to many Democrats, who largely expected her to mount a bid for governor instead. Since then, a number of her would-be primary opponents have backed away from the Senate race, easing Demings’s path to the party’s nomination and soothing Democrats’ concerns of a long and bruising primary campaign.

But Democrats acknowledge that Rubio won’t be easy to beat for a number of reasons. For one, he’s already won two Senate races, most recently in 2016 when he made a late entrance into the race following a failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

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There are also larger issues at play. Democrats have suffered a series of stinging statewide defeats in Florida over the past several election cycles, most recently in 2020 when former President TrumpDonald TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions The Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Biden administration to keep Trump-era rule of turning away migrants during pandemic MORE carried the state for a second time, all the while managing to pick up support in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s largest Democratic stronghold.

And given his roots in Miami and ties to South Florida’s Hispanic community, Rubio is set to enter his 2022 reelection campaign with a key advantage in a part of the state that Democrats need to win big to make up for losses in more Republican-leaning areas.

“It’s going to be difficult,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida. “Rubio has a lot of name ID, he has a lot of support in Miami-Dade. Demings is really formidable and has a big national profile, but I just think it’s still going to be a tough race.”

Demings’s anticipated entrance into the Senate race has already begun to clear out what was once expected to be a crowded primary field.

This week, Rep. Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyLawmakers can't reconcile weakening the SALT cap with progressive goals Select committee member thanks officers who responded Jan. 6: 'You were our last line of defense' House erupts in anger over Jan. 6 and Trump's role MORE (D-Fla.), who was seen as a potential challenger to Rubio, announced that she would seek reelection to her Orlando-area House seat rather than run for Senate. And on Wednesday, former state prosecutor Aramis Ayala, who had previously floated a bid for Senate, said she would instead run for Demings’s House seat.

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Kennedy, a Miami progressive, said that he was relieved that other would-be Senate hopefuls are taking themselves out of the running.

“It consolidates funding and support behind one candidate, which isn’t something Florida Democrats are really known for,” he said.

Demings hasn’t formally jumped into the race yet, though two sources familiar with the Senate contest say a campaign is imminent. Former Rep. Alan GraysonAlan Mark GraysonFlorida Rep. Val Demings officially enters Senate race against Rubio Demings raises Democrats' hopes in uphill fight to defeat Rubio Demings planning to run for Senate instead of Florida governor MORE, another Orlando-area Democrat who was easily defeated in Florida’s 2016 Democratic Senate primary, is also considering a 2022 run.

National Democrats see Demings as their best choice for ousting Rubio. She was first elected to the House in 2016 after serving as Orlando’s first Black female police chief. Her national profile has ballooned over the past year, first when she made President BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions GOP skepticism looms over bipartisan spending deal Biden vaccine rule sets stage for onslaught of lawsuits MORE’s shortlist of potential running mates and again this year when she served as one of the House impeachment managers in Trump’s second Senate trial.

“She’s just the better candidate here,” one Democrat familiar with the party’s Senate strategy said. “Rubio’s a known quantity and it’s not going to be an easy race, so I think Val would really put us on a good footing.”

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The Florida Senate race presents one of several offensive opportunities for Democrats in 2022, when the party is hoping to not only protect, but expand, its ultra-narrow majority in the upper chamber. But the state also presents several challenges, not least among them being the sheer cost of running a statewide race in Florida, a notoriously expensive state for campaigns.

“It’s going to take a huge effort in terms of money and organization for Democrats, notwithstanding some sort of change in the political environment,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “With Val Demings, she’s a quality candidate, checks a number of the best boxes for Democrats. But she has to increase turnout in all the core Democratic areas, and that takes a big effort.”

Still, Jewett said that Rubio is not unbeatable. A survey from Mason-Dixon Polling and Strategy released in March put the incumbent senator’s approval rating at 47 percent, and Florida’s electorate is still closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.

But Trump remains deeply influential within the state GOP and among its voters, and Rubio has largely managed to stay in the former president’s good graces. Trump endorsed Rubio’s reelection bid last month, effectively putting to rest speculation that the Florida senator could face a primary challenge from the right.

“I think that Rubio’s people felt that the biggest threat to reelection would be a Trump-backed Republican primary challenge,” Jewett said. “So when Rubio was able to navigate that and got the blessing from the Trump team, that suggested that he’s got a much smoother path to reelection.”

Republicans say that their spate of victories in Florida in recent years underscores the extent to which the state’s political landscape has shifted in their direction.

“The political environment in Florida has changed,” said Matt Terrill, a Republican strategist and former consultant for the Florida GOP. “It’s frankly a bit more of a conservative red state. You look at the 2020 election for example, Democrats struggled there. President Trump won by almost 4 points, which is practically a landslide for Florida.”

Democrats have also suffered a series of difficult midterm defeats over the years, including most recently in 2018, when longtime Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonTom Brady to Biden: '40 percent of the people still don't think we won' Rubio, Demings rake in cash as Florida Senate race heats up How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation MORE (D-Fla.) lost reelection to then-Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Democrat Andrew Gillum fell to current Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisMeghan McCain predicts DeSantis would put Harris 'in the ground' in 2024 matchup Republican who went maskless now says coronavirus 'wants to kill us' DeSantis challenger Nikki Fried says she does not support statewide mask mandate in Florida MORE (R).

The state currently has only one Democratic statewide elected official, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is widely expected to launch a gubernatorial campaign against DeSantis next month. Terrill said that neither Rubio nor DeSantis will be an easy target for Democrats.

“The political environment, the ability to turn out the base — that really matters, because you tend to have lower turnout,” Terrill said. “If you look at the dynamics of the state right now and the rhetoric coming out of the state right now, that all favors Republicans.”