Marco Rubio and Patrick Murphy easily won their primaries Tuesday, setting up a battle over the next 70 days that promises to play a critical role in determining which political party controls the U.S. Senate for the next two years.
Rubio, who insisted this spring that he no longer wanted the U.S. Senate job he won six years ago, won 72 percent of the vote in the Republican primary against the brash, self-funding millionaire Carlos Beruff and two lesser-known candidates.
"This has been an unusual road back here with you tonight," Rubio told his supporters Tuesday night at his Orlando celebration. "As you know after my race ended in March for the presidency, I was prepared to become a private citizen."
Murphy, a 33-year-old two-term congressman, won 59 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary that included liberal firebrand U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, political novice Pam Keith, a Miami labor attorney and Navy veteran, and two lesser-established opponents.
Tuesday's outcome was what Democratic leaders have wanted for nearly 18 months. Shortly after Murphy declared his bid for U.S. Senate in March 2015, the party's establishment showered him with high-profile endorsements —including one from President Barack Obama — and lucrative financial support.
"I will be the hardest-working senator this state has ever had," Murphy told supporters at his victory party in Palm Beach Gardens. "I will listen to you, I will meet with you and I will bring your voice to the United States Senate."
Both Rubio and Murphy have been girding for this showdown. During their recent campaign stops, Murphy and Rubio have rarely mentioned their primary opponents. Instead, Murphy has aimed attacks at Rubio, reminding voters that the incumbent vowed earlier this year he would not seek re-election. He continued that line of attack Tuesday.
"Senator Marco Rubio is the embodiment of the worst of Washington," Murphy said. "I promise I will serve a full six-year term for the people of Florida."
Rubio fixated on Murphy in the closing days, calling him "one of the most unaccomplished members of Congress."
"Patrick Murphy is nothing more than an old-fashioned liberal and his ideas that he stands for are wrong for Florida," Murphy told his supporters Tuesday night. "They are dangerous and they will leave us vulnerable as people in this nation."
Rubio made clear the stakes — nothing less than Republicans retaining control over the Senate and shaping the U.S. Supreme Court for years to come.
"With a vacancy on the Supreme Court, with the potential that Chuck Schumer of New York will be the majority leader. With all the issues facing America, and I'm so grateful now to come back with you here today," Rubio said.
Republicans currently hold a 54-46 seat majority in the Senate. If Hillary Clinton defeats Donald Trump and Democrats gain four seats, they take control. Florida's Senate seat is among nine that are considered a toss-up.
"If you do your part and I do mine, we'll win in November, we'll keep the majority in the Senate," Rubio said in North Florida last week.
Despite the high stakes, this was not the race Rubio expected to be in.
After spending a year running for president and losing 66 out of 67 counties in his home state to Trump, Rubio repeatedly declared he was ready to leave office.
But in June, Rubio announced he had changed his mind. He cited concerns that without him in the race, Democrats' chances of winning the majority would increase. It didn't hurt that Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, recruited Rubio to run, forcing four other Republicans to drop out of the race.
That left only Beruff.
Without backing from national Republicans and their donor networks, Beruff was forced to spend $8 million of his own money to forge a campaign in a state where TV ads are a necessity.
Beruff tried to use Rubio's political ambition against him, frequently playing up Rubio's missed votes while campaigning for president and his refusal to say whether he would run again for the White House in four years. But he never gained traction.
"I made the miscalculation of taking Mr. Rubio at his word that he wouldn't seek re-election if he lost the presidential primary," Beruff said in a statement after results showed he won just 19 percent. "Even in March he reiterated that he has told people '10,000' times that he is not running for re-election. I guess I was silly to believe the words of a Washington politician.
"With regard to young Mr. Rubio, in my judgment, he made a life mistake. A man's word is the most important thing he has. Mr. Rubio must live with that decision."
Rubio brings instant star power that the five Republicans who sought to replace him lacked. And Rubio is a fundraising dynamo — raising more than $40 million for his presidential campaign — who is battle-tested, having won a tough come-from-behind race to win his seat in 2010.
"Rubio was a game changer when he got back into the race," veteran Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich said.
A seat Democrats looked at seizing suddenly became a lot dicier. Over the last 12 years, incumbents have won re-election to the Senate more than 85 percent of the time.
Rubio improves Republican chances, but the race is still one of the nation's truly competitive contests, said Jennifer Duffy, a senior analyst with the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C. She said Rubio has consistently led in polls, but only in the single digits.
"I don't see that changing much between now and November," she said.
Murphy initially looked like he gave Democrats a statewide candidate with youth and earnestness that could draw independent and moderate voters, Duffy said. But a series of self-inflicted resume gaffes uncovered by the Times/Herald altered that equation. The revelations did little damage to Murphy in the primary because his chief opponent, Grayson, struggled under the scrutiny of an ongoing congressional ethics investigation into offshore hedge funds he managed while in office and allegations that emerged in July by his former wife that Grayson had physically abused her during their 25-year marriage.
Grayson disputed the accusation but it wasn't enough to keep him competitive against Murphy. Grayson toured the state with a few town hall events this month but largely stayed off the radar in the final stretch of the campaign. Grayson barely edged Keith by two percentage points to hold onto a distant second place finish.
Rubio is already using Murphy's resume gaffes against him. As Donald Trump's polls numbers continue to slide, Murphy's strategy has been to tie Rubio to the Republican presidential nominee.
It promises to be a negative campaign that could turn off voters.
Libertarian Paul Stanton, who defeated Augustus Invictus in that party's primary on Tuesday, will be one of five other candidates on the ballot in November. Four candidates with no party affiliation have already qualified for the general election.
Miami Herald reporter Alex Daugherty and Times reporter Allison Graves contributed to this report.