- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2015

The combination of a big, critical swing state and crowded fields in both parties is already making Florida’s 2016 Senate seat race one of the most expensive in the country — and potentially one of the most explosive.

On the left, liberal firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson upset Democratic officials’ plans when he announced he would challenge Rep. Patrick Murphy, the party establishment’s pick, in the primary. And in the GOP, Rep. Ron DeSantis, a tea party favorite, Rep. David W. Jolly, who is relatively moderate, and Cuban-American Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera are duking it out, with other Republican congressmen also eyeing the race.

The seat is open because Republican incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio is stepping down to run for president. Unlike other open seats in Maryland and California, Florida is a critical, contested prize in the 2016 presidential race as well, so the Senate battle will draw even more attention and money.

“It’s highly competitive on both sides of the aisle, which infrequently happens,” Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, said. “Usually one side has competition and the other not so much. But this time, both have competitive primaries with credible people.”

The early polling finds no one in either party has seized control of the race and that a large group of undecided voters remain as the candidates try to introduce themselves to voters across the state. A Mason-Dixon Polling & Research survey late last month found Mr. Grayson with a 1-point lead over Mr. Murphy, with 33 percent of the vote, while Mr. Jolly topped the Republican field, but with just 16 percent support. The poll found that more than a third of Democratic voters and more than half of Republican voters say they are still undecided.

Still, with more than a year before the Aug. 30 primaries, the races have already turned quite pointed.

Mr. Grayson, a Bronx-born former trial lawyer known for his blunt rhetoric, has mocked Mr. Murphy, an accountant by profession, for what Mr. Grayson says is a weak legislative record since his election to the House in 2012.

“Some might assume that Murphy has not gotten anything done because he is just not that interested in the hard work of being a legislator, but I’m also worried that he might not have a firm grasp on the legislative process,” Mr. Grayson charged in a campaign email that linked to the Schoolhouse Rock video “I’m Just a Bill.”

Mr. Grayson has also called Mr. Murphy a “Republicrat” and a “fake Democrat” because Mr. Murphy was registered as a Republican for years until his run for Congress in 2012, and has occasionally broken with his party on congressional votes.

Mr. Murphy has begun to hit back, raising questions last week about Mr. Grayson’s management of a series of hedge funds he controls, but has trained most of his fire on Mr. DeSantis and the GOP bid to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood, trying to rally Democrats behind him on pro-choice issues.

Republican sparring

For his part, Mr. DeSantis has touted his fierce opposition to President Obama, including demanding the firing of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in the wake of the tea party-targeting scandal. He has already earned the endorsement of the influential conservative organizations FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth.

Mr. Jolly, a first-term congressman whose victory in a March 2014 special election was seen as a harbinger of the crushing Republican midterm win seven months later, has been striking back at critics who say he isn’t conservative enough to replace Mr. Rubio. He brands himself as someone who stands against “Congress and Washington insiders” by voting against a mostly unfunded fix to boost payments to doctors who treat Medicare patients, and against a $271 billion estate tax repeal. Mr. DeSantis, by contrast, voted for the tax repeal.

Mr. Lopez-Cantera, who is seen to be Mr. Rubio’s favored candidate, appears to be the slowest out of the gate, lacking even a campaign website despite announcing his bid on July 15.

The conservative Mr. DeSantis and the liberal Mr. Grayson are likely to push the other candidates further toward the wings of both parties, making the eventual general election even tougher to predict, since it’s not clear how those stances will play with the 23 percent of Florida voters who register as independents.

And the primaries are likely to drain campaign treasuries, with candidates having to buy ad time in 10 expensive media markets. Combined with the attention being given to the presidential fight, with Floridians Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush potentially on the ticket, it could make it hard for the candidates to be heard, said Daniel A. Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida.

Outside groups and the campaigns could altogether spend upwards of $100 million over the course of the primaries and the general election, said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at University of Central Florida. Democrats see Florida as a key pickup opportunity in their bid to challenge to retake the Senate in 2016 after losing the chamber in 2014.

“Florida is a purple state, and both sides want to win it,” Mr. Jewett said. “The control of the Senate could be at stake.”

Mr. Jewett said the race has so many members of Congress in it because of pressure from below: The state Supreme Court overturned the heavily gerrymandered congressional map earlier this year, sending the state legislature back to redraw the lines.

The redrawing is going on now, but all four congressmen who have jumped into the race were likely to see tougher prospects for re-election.

While it is unlikely, Mr. Rubio could still run again for his seat. The filing deadline for this election is in May and the primary is in August, so Mr. Rubio has plenty of time to decide to seek re-election as a senator if his presidential campaign does not go well.

But don’t hold out for that, Ms. MacManus said.

“Rubio and Cantera are very close friends. Rubio pretty much convinced Cantera to enter the race — that’s the common thought,” Ms. MacManus said.

“Besides, he’s young, he needs to make some money, he’s got little kids. He might get into the private sector, [or] he might get a Cabinet post if a Republican won the White House. There’s lots of options for Rubio besides returning to the Senate.”

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