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On the cover of Time magazine, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2013 was billed as “The Republican Savior” — a 41-year-old conservative Cuban American wunderkind who was “the new voice of the GOP.” Six years ago, he ran for the Republican presidential nomination.
The golden luster has decidedly faded since then. These days, Rubio is a 51-year-old career politician who appears locked on reelection autopilot. He holds few campaign events. He flip-flops (on immigration, on Donald Trump) and chronically misses Senate votes, seeming unconcerned about the possibility of giving his opponents weapons to use against him.
A sense of entitlement runs deep in career politicians. And maybe Florida’s increasingly Republican leanings will be enough to let Rubio coast to victory in November. Recent polling favors him; the FiveThirtyEight average pegging him with a 4.6-percentage-point lead includes polls with Rubio leads of up to 7 points and as few as 2.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) would like to focus on the polls within the margin of error. It is difficult to imagine a Democratic challenger with a résumé better suited to unseating Rubio. She’s a Black, centrist, law-and-order politician, with 27 years in law enforcement, four of them as Orlando police chief. During that time, the city’s violent-crime rate dropped 40 percent. Did I mention she drives a red Harley?
Demings wields her law-enforcement experience as a different kind of police shield: It deflects the soft-on-crime attacks that Republicans trot out every election cycle. Rubio has, of course, accused Demings of wanting to “defund the police,” to which she responds, “I am the police.” And she points out that while “Rubio was home in his bed sleeping,” she was confronting real-world dangers. Her background also makes it easier to fend off jabs about gun reform.
Joe Biden was impressed enough by her that he put Demings, elected to the House in 2016, on his short list for vice president. Many Americans got to know her as one of the House managers of Trump’s first impeachment.
Rubio has plenty of advantages in this race. He is a household name from voter-rich Miami-Dade County; he’s a Republican running in a midterm election, which typically favors the party out of power; and, well, this is ever-redder Florida.
“The math gets hard,” Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran the 2008 Obama-Biden campaign in Florida, told me. “But it’s not impossible.”
What could make it possible? There are lots of signs. For one, she held a $12 million fundraising lead over Rubio as of Sept. 2. The website Florida Politics notes that even if Rubio polls ahead of Demings, “a plurality of voters say he’s doing a bad job as Senator.”
And then there’s the campaigning by the “Chief,” as her staff calls her. Demings has combined old-school handshaking appearances with TikTok savvy. She has crisscrossed the state and plastered screens with ads hammering Rubio’s weaknesses. She has energized Black voters and is working the Latino vote — long neglected by the party.
Though plenty of Floridians are devoted to Trump and his acolytes, certainly some have soured on the former president. That could sap support for the senator who once labeled Trump a “con man” and accused him of spending “his entire career sticking it to the little guy,” but is now a die-hard defender.
Rubio has showed little interest in investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, invasion of the U.S. Capitol. And, early on, Rubio, vice chair of the Select Committee on Intelligence, dismissed Trump’s mishandling of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago as a “storage” issue.
Then there’s abortion. Rubio has said that he personally favors banning abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest, but would accommodate such exceptions, if necessary, because he realizes that others don’t share his views. He signed on to the ill-fated legislation Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) sponsored last month to federally ban abortion in most cases after 15 weeks.
Demings’s ads have gone after Rubio on abortion. “I know something about fighting crime, Sen. Rubio,” she says in one. “Rape is a crime. Incest is a crime. Abortion is not.” Rubio has countered by accusing her of supporting abortion “up to birth”; Demings has said she supports some restrictions after a fetus becomes viable.
While Rubio seems focused on waging a culture-war campaign, Demings tends toward bread-and-butter issues: She touts her votes on reducing inflation, lowering prescription drug prices, capping costs for diabetes medication and repairing infrastructure — initiatives that Rubio has voted against.
In an appearance on “The View” last year, Demings vowed to “talk to people who look like me and people who don’t look like me about the things that they care about.” Floridians might like what they hear — if they’re listening.