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  1. Florida Politics

With Rep. Patrick Murphy in, Florida's 2016 Senate race is on

Two-term U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, has proven fundraising skills.
Two-term U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, has proven fundraising skills.
Published Mar. 24, 2015

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, a 31-year-old Democrat from South Florida, on Monday announced his campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Marco Rubio, the first salvo in what should be a hotly contested race as Rubio is likely to run instead for president.

An open Senate seat casts an even bigger spotlight on Florida, a critical prize for both parties seeking the presidency, and the Senate winner could be determined by the outcome of that battle.

It could also shake up other races with the GOP eager to regain Murphy's congressional seat and a number of high-ranking Republicans looking to be Rubio's successor.

Murphy, who lives in the Palm Beach County town of Jupiter, begins with a decided challenge that underscores Democrats' problems in statewide races: He has little name recognition outside his district and little experience in politics.

He narrowly defeated Republican Rep. Allen West in 2012, then easily held the seat in 2014 despite initially being considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the country.

He has proved himself a formidable fundraiser and taken a number of strategic votes with Republicans, which could help him appeal to Florida's mixed electorate, though invite a challenger from the left in a primary.

"For years, Sen. Rubio has put the needs of Floridians behind his presidential ambitions," Murphy said. "We need a leader in the Senate whose eyes are firmly fixed on the people of Florida by working together to get things done. In the coming months, I look forward to meeting Floridians across the state to listen, earn their trust and ask for their support."

State and national Democrats seem to be coalescing around Murphy, but at least one other Democrat is giving the race a look, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, a liberal from Orlando.

The lack of a fuller roster raises questions about the depth of Democratic talent in Florida — questions a party leader had to face over the weekend.

"The fact that so much attention is focused on Patrick Murphy, a 31-year-old two-term congressman, would seem to suggest the bench isn't that deep," TV host Jim DeFede told U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, also the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

She promised a "robust" primary and named several other Democrats, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday he has "zero" interest in running for Senate in 2016.

"I'm not at all interested in that," Buckhorn said, stressing that he wants to be mayor for as long as possible. He is widely considered a leading Democrat for governor in 2018.

Wasserman Schultz previously said she will not run for the seat and Charlie Crist ruled himself out. Rubio has said if he runs for president — an announcement is expected next month — he will not use the Senate as a fallback.

One upside for Democrats is that their turnout increases in presidential elections.

Republicans, who dominate the state Legislature and the composition of the U.S. House delegation, have a deeper bench.

Several prominent hopefuls are considering the race, including state CFO Jeff Atwater and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. If either were to win, it would create an opening at the top of state government.

U.S. House members are also eyeing the seat, including millionaire Vern Buchanan of Sarasota and tea party-aligned Ron DeSantis of Ponte Vedra Beach.

Former state House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel told the Tampa Bay Times last week that it is "too soon to make a decision."

For Murphy, entering the race now allows him to raise his profile. In a statement, he pointed to his past work as an accountant and said he ran for office out of concern for a dysfunctional Washington.

"I'm running for the U.S. Senate for the same reason I ran for Congress in 2012 — Washington is full of hyperpartisan politicians who can't, or won't, get anything done, and Florida deserves better."

Murphy, who was previously a Republican, said he has worked in Congress to raise the minimum wage, strengthen Social Security and Medicaid, and protect the Everglades.

Republicans quickly set up a website with an address that looked like one Murphy's campaign would use — patrickmurphy2016.com — but instead leveled numerous attacks on his policy positions.

It also noted the role Murphy's wealthy father, a developer, played in previous campaigns, including pouring hundreds of thousands into a Super PAC to defeat West, whose propensity for controversial statements gained him national attention.

Democrats feel good about Murphy in part because he represents a politically mixed district. He has taken a number of votes that line up with Republicans, including in favor of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

A 2013 vote study by the National Journal placed Murphy toward the center — with a composite score of 56.5 percent liberal and 43.5 percent conservative.

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

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