Patrick Murphy looks to gain edge over Marco Rubio using Trump video, but will it be enough?

U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, agreed to a third debate with Sen. Marco Rubio, this one on Univision.  (CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times)
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, agreed to a third debate with Sen. Marco Rubio, this one on Univision. (CHARLIE KAIJO | Times)
Published Oct. 14, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Ten days ago, Democrat Patrick Murphy's chances to unseat Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate looked less and less likely.

Florida's Senate race was — and still is — competitive, but after weeks of going head-to-head against the Republican incumbent, Murphy had failed to take the lead or even gain a measurable advantage on Rubio.

Then came the leaked footage of Donald Trump.

The 2005 Access Hollywood video showing the Republican presidential nominee boasting of kissing and groping women without their consent has thrust Rubio into defensive mode, causing him to minimize his public profile even as he reaffirms his endorsement of Trump.

This was the golden opportunity Murphy's campaign has wanted to try to knock Rubio down a few pegs.

"We feel really confident that these comments from Trump and these accusations against him this week are going to be a lead weight on Rubio's chances," Murphy campaign spokesman Joshua Karp said Friday.

But political observers say it's too soon to tell whether the Trump controversy will give Murphy enough to overtake Rubio in the final stretch of the campaign.

Several don't expect it to, because Rubio is notably outperforming Trump in Florida.

But the Trump tape fallout "does prevent the race from being a blowout" for Rubio, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, which has continuously rated Florida's contest a "toss-up."

Florida's race used to be touted as among a handful of pivotal ones for Democrats to win so they can reclaim the Senate. But Murphy's campaign saw a visible slide in September that sparked several national political observers to shift their ratings of the race in Rubio's direction; Duffy said she considered a ratings shift, too, after seeing Rubio start "to open up a decent lead."

"Rubio has had a definite edge," Duffy said, but now: "Trump obviously has had an impact. ... It's probably going to be closer than it ought to be."

Despite Murphy adding new staff in September and debuting an aggressive Hispanic outreach operation, his obstacles since the general election began a month ago haven't gone away, and in several ways, he has more impediments:

• Murphy's fundraising for the past quarter was weak, about a third of the $9.6 million Rubio raised. ("The money's dried up. Donors don't believe he can win, so they're not writing checks," Duffy said.)

• Murphy hasn't cut Rubio's overall lead in the polls. Rubio has led in all of them since June, although at least one recently showed Murphy as close as 2 percentage points behind.

• And Murphy continues to lack statewide name recognition, even as voters are already casting mail-in ballots. Recent polls show 10 to 20 percent of potential voters still haven't heard of Murphy, even though he's been campaigning across the state for 19 months.

Adding to Murphy's predicament: National Democrats appear to have hung him out to dry — scrapping at least $14 million in advertising support and all but writing him off.

"He's kind of on an island," said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, which recently moved Florida's race further into the Republican column.

"A lot of the Democratic money has shifted to other states, and I haven't seen evidence that that money is poised to come back," even after the Trump tape and ensuing sexual abuse allegations surfaced, Gonzales said.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee so far this fall canceled about $8 million worth of ad support for Murphy out of $10 million planned. Similarly, the Senate Majority PAC — a Democratic super political action committee — recently pulled $6 million in ad support out of the $10.5 million it had committed. The groups haven't shown any indication to bring back the dollars, although Senate Majority PAC spokesman Shripal Shah said the group is "continuing to monitor the race."

Murphy continues to shrug off the loss of the lucrative firepower, matter-of-factly repeating on Monday: "I'm very confident we're going to have the resources it's going to take to ensure that we're in a great position come November."

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said it's possible for Murphy to still overcome Rubio's lead, but it will take a lot of things working in his favor.

"Senate races in presidential years can break late," Sabato said. "There's six really close races that are going to determine the Senate. Right now, Rubio's isn't one of them. That's not to say there can't be an upset. The higher (Hillary) Clinton goes, the more likely there would be an upset."

"Unless she wins by a lot, I doubt Murphy can win," he added.

Rubio and Murphy will face off in their first of two scheduled debates on Monday night in Orlando, and the Trump tape will likely feature prominently in Murphy's attacks as he tries to outshine the more battle-tested incumbent.

Rubio, meanwhile, "looks forward to contrasting his long record of accomplishments on behalf of all Floridians with Patrick Murphy's record of ineffectiveness and dishonesty," Rubio campaign spokeswoman Olivia Perez-Cubas said.

Since the Trump video was leaked on Oct. 7, Murphy has aggressively capitalized on the controversy by using it against Rubio — who on Tuesday reaffirmed his support for Trump while also condemning his crude remarks. "I do not want Hillary Clinton to be our next president," Rubio said.

Murphy accuses Rubio of "cowardice" inspired by political ambition, and his Democratic supporters are happily reinforcing that narrative.

"After Trump was caught bragging about committing sexual assault, Rubio is sticking with Trump and he's now clearly in hiding so he won't have to defend his indefensible presidential candidate," DSCC spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said.

Rubio's campaign — which had openly announced events in September — has gone mostly dark since the Trump tape surfaced. Rubio first criticized Trump's comments in a tweet the day the video came out, but then went off the radar for several days until his Tuesday statement standing by his endorsement of the presidential candidate.

Since then even, his public presence has remained minimal, as he tries to delicately distance himself from Trump without alienating core Republican voters he'll need in November — or in any future bids for public office.

Trump praised Rubio at one North Florida rally last week for being "very, very nice lately," but Rubio is avoiding appearing with Trump, even as the two were only miles apart in Palm Beach County on Thursday.

"Marco's focused on his own campaign for reelection and has no plans to attend any presidential events," Perez-Cubas said Friday.

Murphy, meanwhile, has taken additional steps he hadn't before to ramp up his appeal among the Democratic base.

After all but cutting off the potential for more than two televised debates with Rubio, Murphy announced last week he'd be willing to do a third with Univision, which Rubio had agreed to a month before.

It was the latest of several examples where Murphy has tried to court Hispanic voters, a demographic that Rubio polls stronger with. Florida's large Hispanic population could help decide races up and down the ballot in November.

Also for the first time last week, Murphy shared the same stage as Clinton, delivering a 5-minute speech ahead of her appearance with Al Gore at a climate-change rally in Miami. During their speeches, both Clinton and Gore name-dropped Murphy to the friendly crowd — video clips of which he has since promoted on social media.

Karp said scheduling conflicts prevented Murphy and Clinton from appearing together sooner.

"We were really pleased to be able to make it work this time," he said, adding that more joint appearances are possible before Nov. 8.

Clinton endorsed Murphy in early September, after being mum about him during her numerous trips to Florida. She started openly praising him in late September, beginning with a Coral Springs rally.

Another boost Murphy has gotten in recent weeks: endorsements by some of Florida's largest newspapers. Several editorial boards, including the Tampa Bay Times and the Sun Sentinel, have backed Murphy over Rubio. the Miami Herald's editorial board has not yet endorsed a candidate for the Senate contest.)

The endorsements praise Murphy's progressive policy positions and have criticized Rubio's lack of commitment to the job in his first term, marked by a poor attendance record and his decision midway through to run for president.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark.