Politico

Democrats agonize over who should try to dethrone Rubio


TALLAHASSEE — The race to challenge Sen. Marco Rubio may turn into another battle that pits the Democrats’ progressive faction against its moderate establishment — to Rubio’s possible benefit.

Democrats initially hoped that Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a moderate Democrat who fled Communist Vietnam as a child, would be the strongest challenger to the conservative Cuban-American Republican in Florida’s 2022 Senate race. The 42-year-old Murphy first won her seat by toppling 12-term incumbent GOP Rep. John Mica and has since won two more races in a highly competitive central Florida district.

While Murphy ponders jumping into the Senate race, she may find her path blocked by Aramis Ayala, a former state attorney whose political career was aided by billionaire George Soros and who could be helped again by a network of liberal donors. Aramis served one term as state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, the growing heart of central Florida that has turned into one of the state’s Democratic bastions.

Ayala, a Black Democrat, put a campaign-styled video out last week on social media where she teased a possible run. She later said in an interview that she is seriously considering running for the Senate seat because the state needs someone who can “ignite hope” among its residents and change the “status quo” represented by Rubio.

“We need a fresh start,” Ayala said. “We know Florida has changed dramatically, but it’s leadership at the top has not changed.”

Over the last two decades, Florida Democrats have a losing record in statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate, and the current debate in the state mirrors the larger conflict within the party nationally. Democrats have agonized over whether they should back candidates who energize younger voters with progressive issues or support centrist Democrats who could appeal to independent and moderate Republicans. Add to this the issue of race, with many Florida Democrats wanting candidates who reflect its diverse ranks. Nearly 29 percent of registered Democrats in Florida are Black.

Kevin Cate, a Democratic ad maker and consultant who has worked on several successful primary campaigns in Florida, said the primary will be decided on more than just where a candidate is on the political spectrum.

“Republicans have gone so far right, it’s more about who can excite and execute and win the general election than it is about any wedge issues,” he said.

In 2018, Andrew Gillum, the Black mayor of Tallahassee, won the Democratic primary for governor by positioning himself as a progressive and beating out centrist rivals such as Gwen Graham, the early favorite, only to narrowly lose to Gov. Ron DeSantis in the general election.

One Democratic consultant, who is not affiliated with any candidate and declined to be identified so as not to appear to take sides, said Gillum’s brand of progressive politics worked because he was a “happy warrior. I don’t see any of the progressives right now who fit that mold.” Also helping Gillum in the primary was the crowded field, where several moderate Democrats split the vote.

That won’t be the case if the Democratic race comes down to Ayala versus Murphy, the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress. Murphy has been inching closer and closer toward officially getting into the race since late February, when she began a statewide “listening tour” where she has talked to Democratic clubs and grass-roots organizations across the state about her political future, including a face-to-face meeting with top Duval County Democrats last Thursday in Jacksonville.

Murphy has sided with Democrats on key votes such as the impeachment of former President Donald Trump and strongly supports LGBTQ and abortion rights. But Murphy has also been able to work with GOP members of the Florida delegation and is a leader of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition. She also supports a balanced budget amendment.

Christian Ulvert, a Democratic consultant from Miami Beach, said a Murphy versus Ayala matchup will prompt a “mad dash” to South Florida, since both candidates are from the greater Orlando area. But he had his doubts that a progressive can win the primary if the number of candidates remains small.

“It’s not enough in the Florida primary to go be the firebrand ultra-liberal,” Ulvert said. “It doesn’t get a dedicated lane, and it hurts you in the general.”

Ayala first gained statewide attention when she angered then-Gov. Rick Scott and other Republicans over her decision to stop pursuing the death penalty in criminal cases. The 46-year-old fought Scott all the way to the state Supreme Court after he reassigned death penalty cases from her office to another prosecutor, though the high court sided with Scott and ruled he had the authority to reassign death penalty cases from Ayala. She opted against seeking a second term as state attorney in 2020.

Ayala said she is “comfortable in my position in moving Florida is a progressive way,” but she also contended that she is open to a range of perspectives, citing her work as a both a prosecutor and public defender.

One other likely candidate in the race is Alan Grayson, the former lawmaker who was soundly defeated in the 2016 Democratic primary for Senate after he faced accusations of domestic violence. Grayson denied the allegations.

Grayson spent a total of six years in Congress before mounting his unsuccessful Senate bid in 2016. While in Congress, he was known for his willingness to snap back at Republicans, including his famous quip during the debate over Obamacare that “If you get sick, America, the Republican health care plan is this: Die quickly.”

He said in an interview he expects to make a final decision about whether he will jump into the race in the next two to three weeks.

Grayson maintained that the winning strategy for Democrats is to assert that Rubio has done little during his decade in office to help individual Floridians. Instead the Democratic nominee needs to be “someone who makes people feel their lives will be better if they are elected to the Senate.”

Juan Peñalosa, the former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said Democrats can win with a progressive “because we understand that progressives come in all stripes.” Peñalosa is involved with a political committee working to get Andrew Yang elected as New York City mayor.

“If you’re pro-environment and green economy, pro-affordable housing and you believe that we need to take bold action to address the crippling crisis of race and income equality in America — you fall in line with the progressive arm of the party,” Peñalosa said. “A candidate who stands up for these issues can absolutely win in Florida.”

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