Many in the progressive community are talking about Congressman Patrick Murphy’s potential US Senate campaign as a problematic one. Murphy’s voting record is controversial to many on the left – though perhaps it shouldn’t be. After all Murphy represents one of Florida’s wealthiest districts, one where both Mitt Romney and Rick Scott carried a plurality (but not a majority) of voters. The Congressman also has worked hard on local issues and his efforts led to the GOP nominating former State Rep. Carl Domino in 2014. Domino is one of the all-time duds in south Florida electoral politics having under-performed in just about every election he’s been on the ballot in since an embarrassing showing in a 2000 State House primary where he outspent his opposition 7-1 but finished 50 points behind the winner, future CFO Jeff Atwater. Domino is such a bad candidate he almost handed over a gerrymandered Republican State House district to the Democrats on two different occasions in the 2000’s, and then got swamped in a 2012 primary as he tried to return to the body in a different seat.
So Murphy deserves credit. He scared off any viable Republican and drew a GOP opponent that perhaps most readers of this blog would have beaten in a competitive election. But does that translate to a statewide race?
Murphy’s moderation probably does not make a difference in a general election. Democrats as we have pointed out before have time and again nominated moderates for statewide office, yet have managed to lose 19 of the last 20 statewide elections where Bill Nelson was not on the ballot. During this same period, the Democratic Presidential nominee has won the state THREE TIMES running as a liberal (This is counting Al Gore’s result in 2000 as a victory). Statewide leaders in the Democratic Party have consistently talked about the need to nominate moderate candidates to be competitive in general elections though ZERO empirical evidence exists that moderate nominees perform better than liberal ones. Only once in the period did the Democrats nominate an out-and-out liberal for statewide office, Dan Gelber for Attorney General in 2010 (Kendrick Meek’s candidacy was undercut by Charlie Crist’s Independent candidacy so his nomination is not really relevant). Otherwise, the Democrats nominated moderates or those who tried to play moderate once running in a general.
But at the same time, Murphy does not have the baggage of some of the moderates who have run previously. Jim Davis had a ten-year Congressional and eight-year State House voting record which included among other things opposition to compensation for the families of the Rosewood victims. Betty Castor had the Sami Al-Arian controversy to overcome and Charlie Crist had Florida’s most negative campaign since Pepper-Smathers in 1950 backed by a complicit media up against him.
Murphy’s voting record is one thing but his style is another. Light on substance and fire, he represents the types of milk toast candidates, like Alex Sink, Bill McBride and Jim Davis. Democratic moderates are a problem not only because they are moderate but because they generally lack the type of fire-in-the-belly to take the fight to the conservatives and Republicans. Time and again, when Florida voters have been given a choice between voting for something and voting for nothing, they choose something. Democratic candidates who have taken a mish-mash of somewhat inconsistent positions on issues have almost always lost to more disciplined and ideologically pure Republicans. In a “purple” state this is telling.
The term “moderate voter” comes from political professionals and general describes those who work within politics. Most voters who are not engaged in the everyday back and forth of lobbying or making political deals vote on one or two issues and tend to be either liberal or conservative. Even if voters self identify “moderates,” in polling or focus groups chances are very good they vote based on one or two issues where they are either clearly conservative or clearly liberal.
This is particularly true in midterm elections — Lower voter turnout in midterm elections among Democrats from my vantage point can be traced largely if not wholly to a party brand that does not identify with the values it campaigns on during Presidential years. The party’s messaging also has consistently failed to mirror the voices of leading progressive groups. This is a problem as well on the national level, where the corporate bent of the Democratic Party is worse than it is here in Florida. But Murphy will be running in a Presidential year, where at least theoretically an exciting national campaign should turn out Democratic voters. So this might work in Murphy’s ultimate favor.
Murphy is unlikely to excite most Democrats in the state, but in theory represents another “safe” consultant/operative driven campaign. Sometimes, these safe candidates win in other states but here in Florida, time and again we have seen these or the sorts of campaigns and candidates that lose on the Democratic line. Maybe that has less to do with the candidates themselves and more to do with a party infrastructure that is largely non-existent and far from permanent even when partially built for an election cycle.
So when it comes down to it, Murphy represents a perfect Florida Democratic nominee – non-controversial, excellent on paper, backed by important consultants, able to “compete in North Florida” ( a region if considered between the Apalachicola and Suwanee Rivers represents less than 4% of the state’s population) and unlikely to rock the boat. The problem is these candidates keep losing statewide. Perhaps Murphy will defy the odds and be different? The numbers may say yes, but logic and history might point us in another direction. Only time will give us clarity and a hint at the answer.