JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Democrat Val Demings, once an underdog in the Florida race for the U.S. Senate, is closing in on incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio, putting into play a seat that Republicans once considered relatively safe as they battle for the majority.
Polls put Mrs. Demings, who represents the state’s 10th Congressional District, within 3 percentage points of Mr. Rubio, a Republican running for a third term. The race is starting to look like a toss-up.
While Mrs. Demings saturates the state’s major media markets with advertisements promoting herself as a tough-on-crime lawmaker who served as Orlando’s police chief, Mr. Rubio is struggling with favorability ratings while facing Democratic voters energized by the Supreme Court ruling overturning nationwide abortion rights.
A string of polls shows Mrs. Demings has nearly closed what many thought would be an insurmountable gap in Florida, where Republicans outnumber Democrats by 250,000 voters.
Rather than a relatively easy path to victory for Mr. Rubio in November, the matchup has suddenly become a nail-biter.
“It’s going to be an extremely tight race,” Bob Ward told The Washington Times. His polling firm, Fabrizio Ward, released a survey for AARP that found Mr. Rubio leading Mrs. Demings by only 2 points among likely Florida voters.
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Republicans aren’t panicking, at least in public, but they are beginning to worry that Mr. Rubio is not running with the same comfortable lead in Florida as Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has steadily held a 4- to 5-point advantage over Democrat Charlie Christ in his bid for a second term.
A Fox35/Insider Advantage poll released last week also found Mrs. Demings only 2 points behind Mr. Rubio among likely voters.
“I think Republicans should be concerned about that race,” American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp said on Newsmax when asked whether Mr. Rubio’s reelection bid was in trouble.
A source close to the Rubio campaign blames money.
Mrs. Demings has outraised Mr. Rubio by a 3-1 margin, said the source, who downplayed Mrs. Demings’ lead by noting that it aligns with generic ballot polling.
“She’s spent over $17 million to perform about as well as a generic Democrat,” the source said.
In June, Mrs. Demings began using the cash advantage to blanket the state with powerful campaign ads to distance herself from the defund-the-police faction that has hurt swing-state Democrats. The ads define her as a tough-on-crime moderate and exclude references to her liberal voting record.
In one advertisement, Mrs. Demings promotes her 27 years on the police force, culminating with her rise to the rank of police chief. It boasts that violent crime in Orlando fell by 40% during her tenure.
“In the Senate, I’ll protect Florida from bad ideas like defunding the police,” Mrs. Demings pledges in the ad. She dismisses as “just crazy” the defund-the-police movement, which other lawmakers in the House Democratic Caucus have promoted.
Polling conducted in early spring showed Mrs. Demings trailing Mr. Rubio by about 8 points. Once the ads began airing this summer, her numbers jumped.
“We’ve known this whole time that showing the chief to voters really moves them, really effectively and really quickly,” Demings campaign spokesman Christian Slater told The Washington Times, explaining the campaign ad blitz.
“We’ve been able to start doing that in June, and that’s what’s really been the difference maker here.”
At the same time, Democrats have criticized Mr. Rubio’s pro-life position. Polling shows that the party’s base is energized by the Supreme Court’s decision that leaves the legal status of abortion up to the states.
In an August online poll from the University of North Florida, 78% of Democrats said the Supreme Court decision on abortion has made them more likely to vote in November.
Mr. Rubio has tried to navigate a divided electorate without betraying his longtime pro-life position.
In late August, Mr. Rubio told a CBS-4 Miami television host who pressed him on abortion access that he opposed the procedure from the moment of conception. Mr. Rubio said he has always supported legislation that allows exceptions to abortion bans, but “the dignity and the worth of human life is not tied to the circumstances of their conception.”
Campaign ads promote Mr. Rubio as an effective senator and highlight bills he has helped usher through Congress. Among the most prominent was legislation providing grants to help small businesses survive forced closures during the COVID-19 pandemic and a measure to provide care to military veterans who suffered the effects of burn pits.
At least in some polls, Mr. Rubio is struggling to win the approval of the majority of Florida voters.
Mr. Ward said campaign polling released this month found Mr. Rubio’s favorable ratings at 44%, while 52% of voters have unfavorable views of the senator. Mrs. Demings had a favorable rating from 42% of voters, but only 28% gave her an unfavorable rating. It signaled that a large chunk of the electorate, particularly Republicans and independents, don’t know enough about her.
Mrs. Demings has the chance to win over valuable independent voters who have not made up their minds, Mr. Ward told The Times, while Mr. Rubio’s campaign could seize on the chance to fill the knowledge gap with a negative campaign blitz against the Democrat.
“Both sides in this race have an opportunity to define who Val Demings is,” he said.
Mr. Rubio is working to define Mrs. Demings as a rubber stamp for President Biden, whose low approval ratings are dragging down House Democrats.
“Val Demings claims she’s running to represent all of Florida, but she has never once rejected Joe Biden’s agenda or his rhetoric,” Mr. Rubio told Fox News.