The news that U.S. Rep. Val Demings is likely to run for Marco Rubio’s Senate seat is both an opportunity for Democrats and a challenge.
The opportunity is that she probably has the best chance among Democrats to beat Rubio, but for now, that is still probably less than 50%.
Demings has the resume, recognition, and toughness to go toe-to-toe with Rubio. I mean, we have seen him wilt in the spotlight before.
However, Rubio comes to the starting line with the advantage of incumbency. That’s big, but the endorsement from the exiled Republican leader at Elba-Lago (it’s a Napoleon reference, for those wondering) is bigger. So, how do Democrats meet the challenge and defeat a two-time Senator they see as vulnerable?
They can start by focusing on the new voting restrictions Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee just enacted. They need to transform those rules from obstacles into opportunity. Starting now, go door-to-door in the communities most affected by the tightened regulations. Sell the argument that the new restrictions are aimed at the people who live there.
That’s what Republicans did in the Cuban-American areas of South Florida, and it was a brilliant strategy. Republicans got on the air early there and knocked on doors and kept a consistent message that Democrats are socialists.
It worked, even if it was fooey.
Democrats have a message, too, that Republicans want to keep minorities from voting, and Demings is the perfect person to sell that message.
But there is another matter.
Democrats believe the 27 years Demings spent with the Orlando Police Department, including four years as Chief, blunts the Republican talking point that Dems are soft on crime.
But it also gives progressives one less box to check on her ideological purity test. We saw how that played out in the 2018 race for Governor when progressives attacked Gwen Graham’s centrist views in the primary. They hammered her for votes on the Keystone XL pipeline while she was in the U.S. House and for votes they said weakened Obamacare.
Demings will face the same scrutiny.
Last July, while Joe Biden considered her for a running mate, Politico reported on her support for multiple officers accused of excessive force while she was Chief. That’s going to come up again. Even if she survives the Primary, young progressives may decide she’s nothing to get excited about. If they decide to sit out the election, she’s in trouble.
Demings brings some serious street cred, however. Her exchange with Republican Rep. Jim Jordan during a House Judiciary hearing about a proposed GOP amendment to the COVID-19 hate crime bill was epic.
When Jordan tried multiple times to cut her off and wrongly imply she wanted to defund the police, Demings cut him to pieces. She zeroed in on the Republican silence about the Jan. 6 insurgency by Trump domestic terrorists at the U.S. Capitol.
“It’s interesting to see my colleagues on the other side of the aisle promote the police when it’s politically convenient,” she said.
Jordan started shouting, Demings shouted back, and it got weird. But, then she threw the knockout punch.
“Mr. Jordan, you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about. You know nothing about law enforcement officers, and you’re using them as pawns,” she heroically thundered.
Jordan continued to interrupt, prompting Demings to ask, “did I strike a nerve?”
A CNN video of the exchange on YouTube has nearly 2 million views.
Many of Demings’ current and former Washington colleagues pushed her to get into the Senate race. Former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill launched the hashtag #RunValrun.
Now, it looks like that will happen. Demings remains non-committal, but think about it. Multiple outlets, starting with POLITICO and including Florida Politics, reported she’s going after Rubio. If that weren’t true, she would have shot it completely down by now.
“Rubio is in for the fight of his life,” prominent Democratic trial lawyer John Morgan said.
Maybe so, but Florida Democrats keep losing elections like this. Whether Demings can change that depends on whether the voters they target will focus on the obstacles or see the opportunity to change things. Selling the latter vision will be her toughest challenge, but it’s the only way to win.