1. Florida Politics

Bousquet: Cursed by history? Marco Rubio's Senate seat has a troubled past

Published Jun. 6, 2016

As Marco Rubio faces pressure to change course and run for a second term in the U.S. Senate, it's time to look at the seat's unique history and ask whether Florida is cursed somehow.

"Nothing's changed," Rubio said Friday, saying he has no plans to run, even though that would lessen the chances that Republicans would keep their majority. But Rubio has not said so unconditionally, and he has until June 24 to get on the ballot.

Anything can happen, as this seat's past occupants have taught us repeatedly.

What first put Rubio on a path to the Senate was Mel Martinez's shocking decision to resign in the middle of his first term in 2009.

After Martinez quit, Gov. Charlie Crist appointed his former chief of staff, George LeMieux, following a series of awkward interviews with other Senate hopefuls, including the late U.S. Reps. Clay Shaw and Bill Young. A visibly indifferent Young showed up for his interview in sneakers and an untucked shirt.

Before Martinez won in 2004, Democrat Bob Graham admirably held the seat for 18 years — a model of senatorial stability that has proved to be the exception, not the rule.

Graham rose to be chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The others who held the seat never attained that kind of stature because they did not stick around long enough in a town where it's all about seniority.

"We haven't had senators who have stayed around for a long time," said LeMieux, who chose not to run for election in 2010.

LeMieux said he has no inside track on Rubio's thinking, but he views it as a no-brainer that Rubio should run.

"He walks in with tremendous name recognition and ability to raise money," LeMieux said. "I think he can do it. And since his presidential campaign ended, he has shown a real vigor for the office."

Before Rubio's White House bid collapsed, he seemed disgusted by the Senate's hidebound ways and was on the campaign trail so often that his missed votes became a major liability.

His poll numbers at home have suffered, but he's still far better known than any of the five Republicans seeking the seat.

Before Graham was elected in 1986, the "Rubio seat" had been a revolving door for three forgettable one-term senators: Republican Paula Hawkins, the "housewife from Maitland," elected in the Reagan landslide of 1980; the harmonica-playing Dick Stone, a Democrat from Tallahassee, elected in 1974; and Republican Ed Gurney of Winter Park, relegated to the wrong side of history as President Nixon's most loyal ally on the Senate Watergate Committee that investigated the coverup that led to Nixon's downfall.

In 1968, Gurney defeated LeRoy Collins, considered Florida's best governor, in a race tinged by race-baiting of Collins, first by his fellow Democrats in the primary, over Collins' role as President Johnson's mediator for civil rights. Gurney left the Senate after facing charges of influence peddling, but he was vindicated.

Rubio appears to now be walking away from the same position that LeRoy Collins craved in 1968.

The result is seven different senators in five decades. And people wonder why Florida doesn't have more clout in Washington.

As Rubio himself would say, nothing's changed.


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