By Matthew Isbell
Several major names in the Florida Democratic Party have been mentioned as possible contenders for the Senate seat in 2016. With Rubio still deciding on his plans, many Democrats are looking to advance onward. Despite a low bench on the state, Democrats still find themselves with several possible candidates. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the congresswoman from South Florida and DNC Chair, has been a potential Senate candidate for several cycles now. Congressman Patrick Murphy, recently re-elected to the red-leaning Florida 18th Congressional district, is planning to announce a run on March 23rd. Congressman Alan Grayson, the liberal firebrand of Florida’s 9th Congressional district, has expressed interest if Wasserman-Schultz does not run. Finally, former Governor Charlie Crist, may or may not have interest in the seat.
Grayson and Schultz represent the liberal wing of the party. Murphy represents the center-left views of the party. Many have called for the party to embrace a hardcore liberal like Grayson. I would argue that is a bad idea. While this author personally finds himself on the far left of the spectrum when it comes to both social and economic issues, this author is also a pragmatist.
Florida is a swing state, and in fact would rank as a Republican-leaning swing state. Obama won Florida in 2008 after dramatically outspending McCain in the state. In 2012, Obama only pulled ahead in Nate Silver’s election forecast on the night before the election; eventually wining by 1%. In both instances Obama’s Florida percent was lower than his nationwide percent. Take Obama’s wins out of the equation, and we see a state that is pretty red. People seems to use Obama’s wins as justification that any statewide contest is winnable in Florida. However, this discounts the political reality in the state. The state is swing, but it has a clear tilt to the GOP thanks to a growing Republican wave in North Florida and Republican dominance in the suburban counties. Democrats rely on a huge turnout increases in southeast Florida and in Democratic Orange/Tampa to win. However, only Obama’s machine has been able to replicate that turnout improvement so far. Democrats can not assume 2016 will bring the same major field operations and enthusiasm. It is impossible to know for sure how the new field structure of a Hillary Clinton campaign will do and what the national winds will be. Democrats cannot assume 2016 will look like 2012/2008. The party needs to embrace a center-left candidate who can have appeal beyond the Democratic counties. This doesn’t come down to simple ideology. A moderate can push back and show instances of working across the isle, which is important. However, in this case, one of the most important things is temperament. The party needs a candidate who is seen as serious, genuine, and represents a new start for the state.
Wasserman-Schultz and Crist
Let me say a few quick things about Wasserman-Schultz and Crist. I do believe Crist can have a future in the party. However, 2016 is not his time. Crist needs to spend 2016 working to help get candidates elected to office and build good will. As for Wasserman-Schultz, her electability outside of southeast Florida is questionable. Then, the recent story that she offered to flip on the issue of medical marijuana to stop attacks has further advances the notion that she is just another politician. Both seem less likely to run then they did before; leaving us with Murphy or Grayson. I am going to explain why I think Murphy is the best choice and then will touch on Grayson as well.
The Strength of Patrick Murphy
Patrick Murphy first came onto the national scene in 2012. At the age of 29, Murphy decided to run in the Democratic primary for Congressional District 22, comprised of coastal Broward and Palm Beach. Murphy, a certified CPA who had gotten a start in his father’s company, wanted to take out Congressman Allen West, who had been elected in 2010 as part of the red wave. Lois Frankel, a longtime politician who served as Mayor of West Palm Beach, also was running for the seat. Murphy and Frankel seemed poised to face off in a primary. Murphy held his own, raising large sums of money early on in the race. Despite being a newcomer, Murphy seemed like a bright young candidate with a great deal of potential. Murphy made West the focus of his campaign from the start, arguing the man had no business in Congress. West was a highly controversial individual, known for making outlandish statements: referring to social security as a Ponzi scheme, telling liberals to ‘get the hell out of America’, and many other highlights. West had been discharged from the Army several years earlier for assaulting civilians. West’s issues had been used against him in his failed 2008 run for Ron Klein’s congressional seat. However, in 2010, the red wave was too much, and rematch between Klein and West ended in West winning by 10%. Murphy took charge attacking West from the beginning and ran his campaign against the growing Tea Party. For Democrats, Murphy looked like the type of young vibrant candidate the party needed.
Murphy was a serious candidate but also clearly knew how to have some fun (see the mugs to the right). The downside seemed to be that only Murphy or Frankel could advance, even though the party would be served well with both in Congress.
Redistricting changed things, however. The old district lines that West then represented had given Obama 52%, but redistricting had made the new district 57% Obama. This meant West would have to run for re-election in a bluer seat in a Presidential year. West opted to not run again in the 22nd district. Instead, in February of 2012, he opted to run for the 18th district in the North. That district had given Obama 51% in 2008. The new 18th district was technically home to incumbent Tom Rooney. However, a seat the west, the 17th, had no incumbent in it based on the lines drawn. Rooney opted to run for the 17th, a safe red district. West was then clear to move to the 18th. This definitely helped West, giving him a voter population that was not as exposed to his crazy. A poll in 2011 showed 44% of the state did not know who West was; with 24% favorable and 32% unfavorable; leaving him room to craft a new image in a new district West would also have also benefited from there being no Democratic campaign already up and running in the area.
However, West didn’t count on Patrick Murphy announcing he would follow West to the 18th. Murphy said it best, “Allen West can run, but he can’t hide.” This move also allowed Lois Frankel to remain in the 22nd district race, where she would go on to win the seat for the Democrats that November.
To highlight this game of musical chairs, the graph below has been added:
We all know how crazy Allen West is. However, it is important to remember that many voters do not. West and Murphy engaged in a race in a district that didn’t know much about either of them. West and Murphy engaged in what was marked as the dirtiest and most expensive House campaign of 2012. West was a fundraising powerhouse, and while Murphy was one the best fundraisers of the Democrats, West still out-raised him. Murphy raised $5 million to West’s $19 million! Conservative groups spent another $2.9 million and liberals spent $3.5 million. A full financial breakdown can be found here.
Murphy used West’s own words against him, bringing up the Congressman’s crazy statements and past controversies while West attacked Murphy for a bar fight that happened when he was in college. West ran positive ads too with him and his family, aiming to humanize him more. Murphy hit back by pointing out the same year a young Murphy was making a mistake in college, was, an adult, as being discharged for abusing civilians.
Polling was all over the map in the race. Partisan polls showed West up by 9%, or Murphy up by 11%. A few polls did show the race for what it was, dead even. In the dead even polls, West was shown to have a 45% approval and 49% disapproval. This was despite the onslaught of negative ads thrown at the Congressman by Murphy and by Democrats. Why would this be? 1) The Congressional campaign was competing for air/mail time with the Presidential and Senate race. 2) West and the GOP were heavily outspending the Democrats and 3) In my opinion, and others’, voters tend to discount attacks after a certain point. West was so crazy that attacking him for the things he did and said seemed outlandish. We have all seen lunatic congressmen win re-election when it appears attacks don’t seem to stick. It’s not uncommon.
The polls also showed that Obama was losing the district by 5%, meaning Murphy would need to outperform the President in order to win. Heading into election day, the race was too close to call. Through the campaign, Larry Sabato, one of the premier race forecasters, ranked FL18 as Lean Republican. It was not moved to Tossup until October.
Murphy managed a narrow win in the election despite the President losing the district by 4%. The race was close and a definitive winner wasn’t known for days. Maps of the Presidential vote and the Congressional vote are below.
Subtle differences in the vote allowed Murphy to win. The map on the right shows where Murphy or Obama did better than each other (green means Murphy did best). Murphy outperformed the President in nearly all regions. Obama did better in African-American areas than Murphy and Senator Nelson. Otherwise, Murphy outperformed the President across the board. Murphy’s strongest gains were in suburban Martin County, where Murphy did around 5% better.
Murphy’s win should not be discounted as a win against weak incumbent. West was a formidable fundraiser and managed to keep voters from despising him in the new district he was running in. Murphy ran a well-financed, disciplined campaign. The challenger took it to West and did the party a major favor by following West to the new district.
From the moment Murphy took office, he was the top target by the GOP. However, Murphy’s moderate voting record and his constituency work made him popular in the district despite the toll of the negative campaign in 2012. Murphy focused on local issues and projects in the area. Issues like securing funding for cleanup of the Indian River lagoon, a major issue for the district, is an example. In fact, Murphy’s environmental record, aside from Keystone, is very strong. Murphy’s advocacy for the lagoon and for Everglades preservation resulted in the Everglades Coalition giving him their Distinguished Public Service Reward.
Murphy spent two years working to cultivate local support. This demonstrates his political brilliance. The 18th is a Republican-leaning district and a nationalized race would spell trouble for Murphy in re-election. Murphy’s quick work to sure up support in the area scared off formidable Republican challengers and the national party lost interest in trying to reclaim the seat when recruitment dried up. In the end Murphy faced off against Carl Domino, a rather obscure former state house member. Despite the rough year for Democrats and Crist narrowly losing the district with 47.7%, Murphy crushed Domino with just under 60% of the vote.
Murphy did not luck into such a weak challenger. His two years in the House allowed him to scare off major Republican threats. This again demonstrates the political smarts of the Congressman. Murphy managed to craft his own image that transcended party lines, leaving him safe despite a horrendous year for the party.
I have a few more things to say about Murphy, but first let me address one candidate that many in the party seem to want to run, Alan Grayson.
The Major Problem with Alan Grayson
My issue with Alan Grayson is not his liberalism. On his voting record, Grayson and myself on agree on nearly everything. However, it is Grayon’s tone and demeanor that make him a nightmare candidate for the Senate.
Grayson was first elected to congress in 2008 to what was then Florida’s 8th district comprising of parts of Lake, Marion, Orange, and a handful of votes from Osceola. This was a swing seat that gave Obama 53% of the vote in 2008. Grayson ran against Incumbent Republican Rick Keller, who was violating his term limits pledge by seeking re-election. Keller was first weakened by a tough primary from businessman Todd Long. Keller only won his primary 53%-47%. In the general, Grayson beat Keller 52%-48% after spending over $2.5 million of his own money.
Once in Congress, Grayson had a liberal voting record, voting for all items of the President’s agenda. However, Grayson’s tone was his problem. Grayson comparing the issue of lack of health insurance to an “American Holocaust,” sparking, rightfully so, enormous outrage. That, and other quips, like saying Dick Cheney was a vampire, gave Republicans all the fodder they needed to portray the congressman as out-of-step with his suburban district. Grayson’s demeanor and temperament were no doubt a problem for his suburban district. Moderate, every-day voters don’t like the contentious, outlandish, person, attacks Grayson lays out. Grayson was a top target for defeat by the Republicans.
As 2010 was clearly shaping up to be a bad year, no doubt the seat would be in play. Former House Speaker Daniel Webster ran for the seat was a major threat to the Congressman. I will give Grayson some benefit of the doubt. Grayson was almost for sure going to lose his seat. The nation was about to have a huge right-wing turn and a swing seat like Florida’s 8th was sure to go red. That same year, three other Congresspeople in Florida lost their seats (Boyd, Kosmas, and Klein). However, Grayson did himself no favors running what is hands down one of the worst ads in recent memory, “Taliban Dan”. Grayson ran an ad in September that aimed to portray Webster as an extremist like the Taliban of Afghanistan. While the comparison alone is, again, one of those things most voters don’t like (similar to saying a Democrat is a freedom-hating communist), the ad used footage of Webster that was edited to make the claims of the ads true. The result was a serious of stories about fact checker groups labeling the ad as false, making Grayson’s honesty an issue. House polls already showed Grayson down single digits. However, by the end of the campaign, Grayson ended up losing by 18%. This is not the first time an ad has blown up in a campaign’s face. Some have written off Grayson’s loss as it being a Republican seat. However, it wasn’t that red. The seat voted for Obama, and in 2010 Alex Sink lost the seat by only 600+ votes. The map below shows Grayson’s loss next to Sink’s. The image is high-res and can be zoomed in.
The image includes three maps. Sink’s results in the district, followed by Grayson’s, and then a map showing the gap between Grayson and Sink (darker purple shows Grayson falling further behind Sink). In general, both candidate won and lost the same areas. However, Grayson lost GOP areas by a wider margin, and down in the Orlando suburbs, he lost several neighborhoods Sink won. Overall, Grayson fell furthest behind Sink in the Orlando suburbs, a key swing-vote constituency. While Grayson and Sink lost the precincts in Marion and Lake that are held in the old 8th district, Grayson did 9.1% worse than Sink in Lake, 7.9% worse in Marion, and 9.2% worse in Orange. Sink won those Orange suburbs 50% to 45%, Grayson lost them 41% to 55%. It is not hard to see Grayson’s headlines aided in such a large collapse. Webster was a strong candidate with ties to the area. However, that cannot account for such a large gap between the Congressman and Alex Sink, especially when polls from earlier in the election did not show such a big loss coming; even with the general issue of house polls being imperfect. The only incumbent Democrat in Florida to suffer a worse loss was Kosmas’ loss in the 24th district. She lost by 19 points in a district that gave Sink only 43% of the vote.
As we all know, Grayson returned to Congress in 2012, running in Florida’s new 9th district, a district just shy of being plurality Hispanic. The district includes south Orange county, all of Osceola, and a few parts of Polk. Grayson faced no major primary to become the nominee for the seat. He then faced off against a weak GOP candidate, Todd Long, in the general election. Grayson won the seat with 62.5% to Obama’s 61.9%. Grayson was back in Congress and continued to make headlines. The most well-publicized was him comparing the the Tea Party to the KKK. Again, folks, this is not what wins over swing voters. Grayson would go on to get re-elected against weak opposition. Grayson got 54% in his re-election, the same year Crist got 53%. Grayson has never shown an ability to win without the partisan lean of the area propping him up. He under-performed Obama in 2008 and just nudged above the top of the ticket in 2012/2014. Grayson, similar to West, is his won worst enemy, making statements and causing controversy that is not needed.
How Murphy Stacks up to the rest his Colleagues
So I’ve argued why I think Murphy is the best and why Grayson is a bad choice by looking at their respective campaigns. So how do they stack up compared to the rest of their congressional colleagues in the House? Well for 2012 and 2014, I looked at how each Democratic candidate for Congress, whether Incumbent or Challenger, did compared to Obama or Crist’s percent of the vote. The first chart below shows each congressional seat, the winner of the seat, the percent for Obama, the percent for the congressional candidate, and the margin the Dem got over Obama (negative of course means they did worse). The chart is ordered from best over-performance to worst under-performance.
Murphy ranks in at he second best performance, doing 2.7% better than Obama. He is only outpaced by Kathy Castor, who beat a weak opponent in a safe blue seat. Val Demings, who challenged Webster in the now-10th district, came in just behind Murphy. Grayson is further back with just 0.6% over the President. Democratic Congressmen Hastings and Deutch only had NPA challengers and were hence not included. A handful of Republican congressman also faced NPAs or were unopposed and are not in the chart.
The next chart shows the gap between the Democratic candidates and Charlie Crist.
In 2014, a bad year for the party, Murphy stood out, blowing past Crist’s percent and doing 12 points better. Gwen Graham came in second, unseating incumbent Steve Southerland by doing over 4% better than Crist. Murphy did have a weak opponent. However, the same applies for the rest of the congressional delegation except for Garcia in the 26th district. Garcia was targeted and lost his re-election down in Miami-Dade. The rest of the delegation faced weak opposition but Murphy turned it into a double-digit improvement over Crist. Another note, Deutch and Castor faced no opposition in the general election, as did a few Republicans.
Looking at the 2014 results further. If you were to plot the percentage given to the candidate and the percentage for Crist you would see a strong correlation. The scatter-plot below shows each district that had a D v R race. The black line represents a perfect correlation, and any dot (district) falling on it means it gave Crist and the Dem Candidate for Congress the same percent of the vote.
Most districts fall close to the line. I labeled those with a Democratic incumbent and Gwen Graham. All other challengers except Graham are seen further down, under-performing Crist (no unsuccessful challenger did better than Crist). Several Democrats fall just along the line. Murphy is positioned well above the line. Despite being in a less Democratic district, Murphy’s dot rises so high it nearly gets to Wasserman-Schultz’s position on the vertical grid. Murphy and Graham stand out on the scatter-plot, showing their strength compared to how Crist did.
Murphy has drawn some ire from liberals for his voting record. The argument is that he is not liberal enough. However, I point out the congressman is pro-choice, pro-gay rights, been a major Everglades backer, backed allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, backs a progressive tax on the rich, backs federal investment in the economy and is against privatizing social security. It’s important not to just look at the roll call votes, as they only represent what the GOP has allowed votes on in Congress. Murphy is a moderate, yes. However, he is a moderate any liberal can be happy with. Liberals say they don’t want another Nelson. Well do you remember Nelson stopping any of Obama’s bills from becoming law in 2009-2010? Me neither.
Another Nelson is not a bad thing in this swing state. Murphy would make the Democratic Party proud. This young candidate came out swinging and helped the party slay a lunatic congressman in 2012. He has shown he can perform under pressure and has balanced his views with the voters he represents. This liberal, for one, is excited to see the prospect of Patrick Murphy running for the Senate.
You can find more observations from Matthew Isbell at mcimaps.com