TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — On paper, Rep. Val Demings should be the ideal Democratic candidate to challenge GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
Demings served as Orlando police chief before winning a congressional seat in 2016, was short-listed to serve as President Joe Biden’s running mate, has outpaced Rubio in campaign donations and is regularly greeted enthusiastically by voters on the trail. She routinely notes her upbringing — a “Black girl who grew up poor in the South” and was the daughter of a janitor and a maid.
But she’s been forced to campaign while Biden’s numbers have sunk in Florida, his administration has pushed policies that have alienated South Florida voters vital to her campaign and the electoral landscape in the state now favors Republicans.
“This is my race. And this race is between Marco Rubio and me,” Demings said in an interview. “I know Marco wants me to focus on the president’s approval ratings. I can control what I’m doing. I can’t control the president’s approval ratings.”
Yet as a sign of how gloomy Florida looks for Democrats, neither the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee nor a super PAC that backs Senate Democrats has reserved any ad time in the state. Demings may not get any measurable help in a state that may be slipping away from her party.
She’s now focusing on two issues in the hopes of energizing voters, though political advisers warn it may be a losing proposition. It’s another sign that the key Senate race may be out of reach for Democrats, further jeopardizing the party’s control of Congress.
Demings has started to hammer Rubio over gun control and abortion in an effort to turn the tide in a race where polls have shown her trailing the two-term Republican. She has spent time in recent campaign stops highlighting Rubio’s opposition to abortion after the disclosure of the Supreme Court’s initial draft opinion overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
During a Tallahassee visit to drop off campaign paperwork, she called Rubio’s opposition to abortion — even in cases of rape and incest — “disgusting.” In the aftermath of the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, she has dinged the two-term senator for his recalcitrance to back universal background checks or raise the age to purchase a rifle to 21— which the Republican-controlled Legislature did in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.
Abortion and guns have emerged as flashpoints for Democrats nationally. But a May poll by Florida Atlantic University showed that, while 67 percent of Floridians believe that abortion should remain legal in all or most cases, only 39 percent of those surveyed called it a high priority. More respondents were focused on cost of living/inflation, the war in Ukraine and education. While there have been no recent polls in Florida on guns, a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll conducted the day after the Texas shooting found that 65 percent of voters nationally were in favor of stricter gun control laws.
Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster in South Florida, said he wasn’t sure that the two issues have the “potency” needed to jolt the race.
“To just talk about the abortion issue and gun control feels like already plotted ground,” Amandi said. “The best bet is for Val Demings and Democrats to put in the candy-coated shell of Republican extremism. Republicans are becoming radicalized extremists and taking positions far outside the American mainstream.”
Rubio and his campaign have repeatedly linked Demings to Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, hoping the connection will weigh down Demings, who is still a bit of an unknown outside of central Florida despite having served as an impeachment manager during former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment.
“The reason they want her in the Senate is because they know she’ll go vote with them a hundred percent of the time on the issues,” Rubio said in a brief interview after a North Florida campaign stop. “It’s almost irrelevant what she personally feels about some of these issues. She’s going to do whatever [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer tells her.”
Rubio’s camp has also pushed back against accusations that he is opposed to any legislation involving guns, pointing to his sponsorship of a bill that would offer grants to states that adopt “red flag” laws where law enforcement can ask a judge to temporarily take away guns from people who pose a threat to themselves or others.
Demings jumped into the Senate race in June 2021 — a move that caught some by surprise, including some Democrats who initially anticipated she would challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis, a rising star in the GOP.
Rubio and his campaign have continually slammed her as too “radical” for Florida due to her reliable Democratic voting record. Despite Demings’ law enforcement background, Rubio has secured support from the statewide groups that represent sheriffs and police chiefs, although those groups usually back Republicans. Demings has at the same time maintained a balancing act when it comes to Biden, expressing skepticism of overtures to Cuba and criticizing the administration’s negotiations with Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.
“There’s no need to make a deal with the devil,” Demings said of overtures to Maduro.
Demings has also not weighed in on student debt forgiveness proposals that have been slammed by Republicans.
Shortly after Demings jumped into the race, the DSCC last year included Florida on a list of states the organization said it would invest in ground operations ahead of the election. Since then, however, the GOP overtook Democrats among active registered voters and DeSantis has raised tens of millions of dollars that he’ll likely use to push Republicans to the polls this fall.
So far, Florida appears to be hands off, although some Republicans expect that to change. A recent analysis by AdImpact shows no statewide candidate other than DeSantis has made ad reservations for the fall — yet another warning that Florida has lost its status as the nation’s biggest battleground state.
A super PAC backing Rubio started airing ads this week in the contested Tampa area hammering Demings as a Pelosi acolyte as part of a $1.5 million effort. However, Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was non-committal about whether the organization — led by fellow Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott — would be placing large ad buys in the state.
“Marco Rubio is running a great campaign and is in great position to win re-election,” Hartline said. “The NRSC will continue to evaluate races across the country and will make spending decisions based on the dynamics of each individual race.”
When asked about the lack of ad reservations so far, David Bergstein, an aide with the DSCC, commented said that “Florida is a battleground and Val Demings’ strong candidacy is putting Marco Rubio on defense in this Senate race.”
Demings, during the moments following a recent campaign appearance at a small community center, acknowledged that “no, it’s not easy.”
“Florida is the third largest state in the union, it’s 21 million people. It’s a very expensive state,” she said.
But when asked about a potentially bitter campaign in the months ahead, Demings quickly pivoted to the story she keeps giving on the trail: “As a police officer I had some tough days, there were times when people said some of the nastiest ugliest things to me, but I still did my job….
“This race is not about me. If it was about me, I might worry about how nasty the race got or what people said.”