In the last few weeks we have been told Patrick Murphy is the most electable Democrat who could be potentially running for US Senate. As we have outlined before, much of this reasoning is based on outdated theories about “moderates” and the need to appeal to “mainstream” voters. However, it must be conceded that the numbers make sense in principle about Murphy’s strength — Matt Isbell, the smartest numbers guy in the state (at least among Florida Democrats) has made a strong case that Murphy is a “dream candidate.” Democrats certainly need a dream candidate considering the party has won just 5% of statewide elections since 2000 where Bill Nelson who was an established statewide figure before the turn of the century wasn’t the party’s nominee. However you cut it, 5% is an exceptionally low and embarrassing number particularly when you consider that Democrats have for all intents and purposes carried the state in three of the four Presidential elections during that period.
Much of the media focus the last few days has been on Murphy’s increasingly conservative voting record which has seen him cast a higher percentage of critical votes with the GOP leadership in 2015 than with his own party. The case can be made that once again the Florida Democrats playbook, as it has been for the past fifteen years is to nominate the most corporate friendly candidate possible in the hope she or he attracts mythical moderate voters and money from big business. For whatever reason, the thought process among many usually rational activists throughout the state is that Murphy’s candidacy will be different from that of many previous middle-of-the-road campaigns. It very well could be — provided that CFO Jeff Atwater is NOT the GOP nominee for US Senate in 2016.
In both the 2010 and 2014 CFO elections, Atwater received many crossover Democratic votes in Murphy’s adopted home of Palm Beach County, particularly in coastal areas. Additionally, many of Atwater’s local backers are prominent Democrats —including multiple activist leaders whose support might be critical for Murphy to lock down areas east of I-95 in a General Election. Three coastal State House seats in Broward and Palm Beach counties all won by Charlie Crist on November 4, 2014 yet carried by GOP incumbent House members (HD 85, 89 and 93) more or less reflect the area where Atwater has created his political base. It is this area where Murphy hails from ( he was a Fort Lauderdale resident and now claims Palm Beach Gardens as home) and this area where ticket splitters are prevalent. It is worth noting the majority of county and municipal officials representing these areas are Republicans, although Democrats have fared well in statewide and Presidential campaigns here. Atwater, using his old political base was able to carry about three dozen precincts precincts east of I-95 in both 2010 and 2014 that Democrats carried in the majority of races on the ballot that day for State or Federal office. This is thanks to Atwater’s long-standing relationships throughout the area.
As a State Representative and State Senator, Atwater had a unique ability to connect with Democratic leaders in his Palm Beach County home and win key support from Democrats in local elections. Atwater quickly became a superstar after trouncing Carl Domino in the 2000 State House District 83 (now 85) GOP Primary despite being heavily outspent. He then defeated Democrat Pam Dunston easily in the fall, despite the fact that Al Gore carried the district by six percentage points over George W. Bush. In a study I did for the Palm Beach County Democratic Party in 2001, we determined that upwards of 15% of the electorate in House District 83 had voted for Gore, as well as Bill Nelson for US Senate, but then switched to Atwater in the State House race. This trend would continue in future years.
Two years later, Atwater was the beneficiary of a feud between Senator Debby Sanderson and former Senate President Jim Scott. Scott, serving as legal counsel for the Senate on reapportionment, helped engineer the redrawing of Sanderson’s district (which Scott had formerly represented for 24 years) into areas that would make her re-election less likely. Sanderson, after initially running against Atwater, dropped out and Atwater was elected by a wide margin over statewide Democratic superstar Bob Butterworth, the sitting Attorney General. Butterworth’s campaign never really took off, but Atwater had defeated the most popular statewide Democratic official and was instantly a player in Republican party circles. These connections have persisted.
In 2010, following Atwater’s tenure as Senate President local loyalty was so strong to him many prominent Democrats in the area quietly steered support even in the condo area towards him in his CFO race. Atwater still lost condo precincts in 2010 and 2014 to his Democratic opposition but fared better than the rest of the GOP ticket in both elections. Some of Murphy’s local crossover support comes from people involved in groups such as the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and local Chambers of Commerce. In a head-to-head matchup with Atwater, the members of these groups can be almost guaranteed to stay home with the popular local Republican. Applying logic to the equation, Murphy or any other Democrat would be a prohibitive underdog against Atwater. However, a hope must spring eternal in Democratic circles that Atwater’s moderate reputation costs him a GOP Primary should he run. Murphy certainly would be competitive if not favored against Rep. Tom Rooney (who previously represented much of Murphy’s current district) or Rep. Ron DeSantis. But it is difficult barring a major Democratic wave, to see how Murphy is the ideal candidate against Atwater given the geography of the race. Then again perhaps nobody on the Democratic side is ideal against Atwater, a proven successful statewide and local vote getter.