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Steven Schale: Patrick Murphy gives Democrats a real shot at Senate seat

The revolving door that is Bob Graham’s old U.S. Senate seat will continue in 2016. Barring a surprise, Florida will have its fourth Senator representing that seat since Sen. Graham retired – and for Democrats, Congressman Patrick Murphy gives us a real chance to return the seat to our column.

At this point, there is little doubt that Marco Rubio is running for president, as frankly he should. Rubio’s presidential ambitions are well-known, and even if he falls short in 2016, recent history says the best path to the GOP nomination is, well, to run for president. Outside of President George W. Bush – whose father was president, and excluding President Gerald Ford, who became president the Frank Underwood way, without his name ever appearing on any national ballot, the last GOP nominee who hadn’t previously run and lost was Barry Goldwater. And for Rubio, there is little upside to trying to remain in the Senate in the event that he is not the nominee.

My prediction there by the way – Rubio is going to be far stronger in the nomination fight than people expect. It would not surprise me at all if he’s the nominee.

So back to the Senate race.

Here’s a fun fact:

Democrats running for the Senate in presidential years consistently outperform the presidential nominee. Even in losses, no Democratic nominee for the Senate has under-performed the presidential nominee since 1980. And I imagine if I looked back further, this trend extends for quite a long time.

Now Democrats shouldn’t be under any illusions that winning the Senate race in 2016 will be easy. All three of the possible GOP nominees, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford are impressive in their own rights. I know the latter two are not as well-known as Atwater, but I know both of them personally and anyone who doubts their ability does so at their own peril.

It is also worth noting that Will and I were staff in the Florida House at the same time. He’s gone on to be a possible statewide candidate and I am still a political hack. Not sure what that says about me!

Winning in 2016 will be expensive and require a candidate who can appeal across the political spectrum, and Democrats have a possible candidate who has proven he can go toe-to-toe with whoever wins the GOP primary: Patrick Murphy.

Let’s start by looking at his electoral success. In his two elections, Murphy has out-performed the top of the ticket both times. In 2012, in his expensive battle with Allen West, he out-performed the president by 3 points, and this year he out-performed Charlie Crist by approximately 10 points. Murphy’s 20 point win in 2014 was even more impressive when you consider the gale force wind that Democrats faced during that cycle. Particularly if the GOP nominates Jeff Atwater, who has proven his ability to win swing voters, having a candidate with the ability to win voters across the aisle will be key.

Murphy’s strength among swing voters means he will absolutely run stronger with whites than either Obama or Crist. For Murphy, an electorate that is 67 percent white, 14 percent black (African American and Caribbean), 16 percent Hispanic and 2 percent other – he is over 50 percent simply by getting 41 percent of whites and 55 percent of Hispanics, vote shares that are well within historic norms. By comparison, Betty Castor in 2004 won in the mid-40s among whites – and almost certainly would have won under a 2016 demographic model, and Bill Nelson in 2012 ran 10 points higher than Obama among whites.

In addition, Murphy’s fundraising abilities, raising a remarkable $11 million in his two races, as well as the talent of his experienced team that can and will put together a very credible operation quickly.

Congressman Alan Grayson is rumored to also be considering a race, and some believe he is a better candidate. I am not in this camp. His 18 point shellacking in 2010 by Dan Webster should give Democrats real pause as to his ability to compete with independents and swing Democrats and Republicans. And frankly, I do not buy the argument that he can somehow drive turnout – in presidential cycles, presidential candidates drive turnout. His style may work with some base voters (though not this one), but I don’t believe he can be a competitive statewide candidate. He can probably stay in his congressional seat as long as he wants, though if he runs for the Senate, my friend Sen. Darren Soto will make an excellent member of Congress.

Along the same lines, Murphy gives progressives plenty to rally around. He’s pro-choice and has been a consistent champion for gay rights. He supports comprehensive immigration reform, has voted to increase the minimum wage, and has opposed GOP cuts to Medicare and Social Security. But at the same time, he’s been a moderate on taxes and economic issues, something important to winning in Florida; cutting taxes for the middle class and turning the economy around were the two central positive messages that helped us carry swing voters for Sen. Obama in 2008.

I’ll be honest, when I first met Patrick Murphy, he was very green. But in the six years since he entered the political scene, he’s matured into a seasoned pro, ably guided by Eric Johnson, who is one of the smartest on my side of the aisle. Murphy has been tested by two tough races, but yet he’s fresh enough to the game that he offers a new and compelling candidacy, and in my opinion, a real shot we have at taking back the seat.

Unless of course, Bob Graham wants to run. 🙂

Steven Schale is a Florida-based political, communications and government relations strategist who blogs at Observations on Florida from a leading politico. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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