ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida Rep. Val Demings is planning to run for the U.S. Senate, rather than governor, providing Democrats with a big-name candidate to take on Republican Sen. Marco Rubio next year.
For months, Demings mulled which statewide office to pursue, but decided she could do the most good by taking on the two-term senator, according to several Democrats familiar with her thinking.
“I would’ve supported her running for governor, but this is the right fit for her and for us,” said Alex Sink, a former Florida chief financial officer who narrowly lost her 2010 bid for governor against Rick Scott, who is now a senator.
“She’s going to draw a contrast between who she is and how she represents Florida vs. Marco Rubio, who a lot of people where I live never see him.”
Sink said she was recently on a Zoom call with Demings and activists with Ruth’s List, the Florida-based organization dedicated to electing women who support abortion rights, and it was clear that she and national Democrats felt she would represent the party’s best chance to put Republicans on defense as they try to take back the U.S. Senate.
Demings, 64, was first elected to the House in 2016 from Orlando and held the distinction of being the city’s first Black woman police chief. She rose to national prominence as the only non-lawyer on the first House impeachment committee to charge President Donald Trump with wrongdoing. As a Black woman and law enforcement officer, her background made her uniquely situated to be a national Democratic spokesperson for policing and race issues — it helped catapult her to President Joe Biden’s shortlist as a possible running mate in 2020.
A top adviser to Demings compared her personal biography to Rubio this way: “She’s the daughter of a maid and a janitor who became the first Black woman police chief in Orlando. He’s the son of a maid and a bartender who’s a career politician.”
The adviser said that Demings, who has grown increasingly critical of GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, ultimately became more frustrated with Senate Republicans under Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and their “obstruction.”
“If I had to point to one thing, I think it’s the Covid bill and the way Republicans voted against it for no good reason,” the adviser said. “That really helped push her over the edge. She also had this huge fight with [Ohio Republican Rep.] Jim Jordan and it brought that into focus. This fight is in Washington and it’s the right fight for her to continue.”
The adviser left some wiggle room for Demings to change course, saying there was a “98.6 percent chance” that she would ultimately challenge Rubio. By running for Senate, Demings leaves the gubernatorial field to Rep. Charlie Crist and state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is expected to announce a bid soon.
Demings expects to make her decision final as early as next month.
Demings’ plans could put her on a crash course with two other Orlando-area Democrats: Rep. Stephanie Murphy and former Rep. Alan Grayson.
Even Demings’ supporters acknowledge Rubio will not be easy to beat. He has won two statewide general election races already and the bilingual incumbent has a measure of crossover appeal with the state’s sizable Hispanic population, which broke more strongly for Republicans in the last general election than many Democrats had anticipated. Hispanic voters still favor Democrats overall in most polls and in Florida general elections, but the 2020 election results unnerved national Democrats.
About 17 percent of the state’s registered voters are Hispanic and 14 percent are Black.
In recent election cycles, Democrats have failed to conduct the voter registration drives necessary to boost their standing in the state, but national and state Democrats say they plan more field work to change that.
One of those groups, The Collective PAC, was founded to support Black candidates and plans to be highly active in Florida with Demings on the ticket.
“Demings was one of the first Democrats we backed when we were formed in 2016 and since that point, she’s been a rising star in politics,” said Quentin James, The Collective PAC’s founder and executive director. The Collective helped push Andrew Gillum over the top in the crowded 2018 Democratic primary for governor, but he narrowly lost to DeSantis in the general election.
“We came very close with Gillum,” James said. “But now we’re back with a really great candidate. We’re going to do all the things. It’s not either or, not just TV or field. We’re doing both.”
Unlike Gillum, one of the most progressive candidates ever nominated by the state party for governor, Demings is more moderate in tone and policy, James said, “so Republicans can’t call her a socialist.”
But an element of the Democratic base has grown increasingly critical of law enforcement, and that could be a challenge for Demings because of her background. James dismissed the concern, saying young and progressive voters “aren’t really anti-police. They’re against police brutality.”
Still, Sink said Demings might have “some explaining to do.” She said the bigger challenge for Demings was the one that Democrats throughout the state face: voter registration and turnout.
“If we don’t register our voters and get them out, we’re not going to win,” Sink said.