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Race To Replace Florida Sen. Rubio Is Crowded, Contentious

Sen. Marco Rubio poses with supporters after the event
Steve Newborn/WUSF
Sen. Marco Rubio poses with supporters after an event.

As Republican Sen. Marco Rubio pursues the presidency, the Florida Democratic primary race to replace him pits a moderate embraced by party leaders against a fiery liberal who's offering a "one-finger salute" to Washington's Democratic establishment, and a large field of Republican contenders is trying to tap into an anti-Washington sentiment.

Florida is seen as a key to Democrats' hopes of regaining power in the Senate. While Republicans dominate the state and have held the governor's office and the Legislature since 1999, Democrats turn out in higher numbers in presidential election years and the open seat gives them a better chance than if Rubio sought a second term.

But the primary has already turned nasty, with U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy repeatedly pointing out that his opponent, Congressman Alan Grayson, faces an ethics investigation and Grayson blasting Murphy as a former Republican who has voted with Republicans on key issues.

Party leaders see Murphy as the more electable candidate and he's built a large list of endorsements while raising $5.7 million — more than any candidate in either party. Grayson ended the year with only $211,525 in his campaign account, though he's widely recognized as the congressman who made national headlines for saying Republicans' health care plan was to not get sick, and if people do, "die quickly."

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid this month said Grayson should get out of the race after the House Ethics Committee began investigating a hedge fund he manages that until recently was based in the Cayman Islands. Murphy says Grayson is a hypocrite for being anti-Wall Street while managing the fund.

"It's appalling. It's bad for the party, it's bad for all elected officials, quite frankly," Murphy said. "What's your number one concern? Is it your constituents or is it making money?"

Grayson, a favorite of progressive voters, said the attacks have only helped him. He said he had his best fundraising week of any campaign after Reid's and Murphy's criticisms.

"People hate mudslinging, which is all Murphy seems to be capable of doing, and they hate the DC establishment — the corrupt, inept DC establishment, which Reid has embodied his entire career," Grayson said. "Our voters understand Patrick Murphy is an empty suit backed by more empty suits and he's a sellout to lobbyists, and special interests, and multi-national corporations and big banks."

Meanwhile, the Republican primary is a free-for-all between two congressmen, the lieutenant governor and two wealthy businessmen who've never run for office. The latest entry is homebuilder Carlos Beruff, who toured the state Monday to announce his campaign. He's never run for office, though he's close to Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott and Beruff also share a similar message that businesses create jobs, not government. Scott had never run for office before spending $73 million of his own money to win in 2010. While Beruff isn't as rich as Scott, he plans to finance a large part of his campaign.

"Money isn't what wins campaigns, it's the person and whether or not the public thinks you're the right person for the job," Beruff said. "If you can't bet on yourself, then why is anybody else going to bet on you?"

But he's getting a late start before the Aug. 30 primary. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, businessman Todd Wilcox and U.S. Reps. Ron DeSantis and David Jolly have been campaigning for months.

DeSantis attacked Beruff for supporting former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist against Rubio in the 2010 Senate race even after Crist left the GOP to run as an independent. DeSantis was elected in 2012 in his first run for office with the same anti-Washington message Beruff and Wilcox are now using.

"I haven't let Washington change me," said DeSantis, who has led the Republican field in fundraising and is backed by conservative groups like Club for Growth. He said he "has taken on the permanent political class in government,"

Lopez-Cantera, who served eight years in the state House and the last two years as Scott's lieutenant governor, repeatedly says he isn't a Washington politician. He is also making the case that he'll be stronger against Murphy, who, like Crist, is a former Republican.

"I'm the only one who's been on a statewide ballot. I'm the only one who knows the issues in this state from top to bottom," Lopez-Cantera said.

Wilcox said he's not afraid that Beruff will eat into the selling point that he's a businessman and not a politician. He notes that he also served in combat in the Middle East and returned to the region with the Central Intelligence Agency, experience he says makes him stronger on national security issues.

"He's a successful businessman and he can write a check. So can and I and I have," said Wilcox, who has spent $750,000 on his campaign.

Jolly, a former Washington lobbyist and congressional aide before being elected in 2014, didn't make himself available for an interview after email and phone requests to his campaign.


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