Democrats Say Patrick Murphy Can Still Win — But Will He Have the Money?

Florida Democrat faces tough Senate battle against Marco Rubio

Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., walks down the House steps at the Capitol following the final votes of the week in Congress in June. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., walks down the House steps at the Capitol following the final votes of the week in Congress in June. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 30, 2016 at 5:00am

Patrick Murphy is down in the polls, running against one of the Republican Party’s biggest stars, and beset by uncomfortable questions over his worthiness for higher office.

And yet Democrats say the biggest problem facing their Senate nominee in Florida is more fundamental: He isn’t well known — and he might not have the money to change that.

Murphy is just a fresh-faced congressman running against Sen. Marco Rubio, a former presidential candidate with nearly 100 percent name recognition. One poll conducted in September found that 20 percent of Florida voters still didn’t know enough about Murphy to form an opinion, while just 1 percent of them said the same of Rubio.

The 33-year-old’s campaign has money, but in a state of 20 million people and 10 media markets, his cash alone can’t close the name ID gap.

He needs help, but a key ally, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has delayed a round of pro-Murphy TV ads slated to begin this month until mid-October. Among Murphy allies, there’s a palpable fear that the committee will abandon the race altogether.

Its absence — the DSCC was slated to spend $10 million in Florida — would exacerbate Murphy’s already potentially fatal problem.  

“There used to be a school of thought in Florida that you had to lose statewide to win statewide,” said Steve Schale, a veteran Democratic strategist in Florida. “It’s not like an Iowa where you can build name ID by visiting communities. You have to buy name ID here or get it from longevity.”

Said one Democratic strategist friendly with the Murphy campaign: “His challenge is to raise as much as he can, and run as many ads as he can, and simply make sure Floridians know who he is.”

Senate Democrats had considered the Florida race one of their best pickup opportunities of 2016. But Rubio’s decision over the summer to seek re-election changed the calculus back in the GOP’s favor.

Leading the polls

Fewer than six weeks before Election Day, the incumbent Republican leads Murphy in every recent poll, including by 6, 9, and 11 points. (One survey showed Murphy closer, losing by just 2 points.) So far, polls also show Rubio outperforming GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who is running about even against Hillary Clinton in the state.

Rubio’s lead and the DSCC’s decision invite comparisons to the Senate race in Ohio, a state Democrats once considered a top-tier target that they now believe is unwinnable.

But party strategists shrug off that comparison, saying Murphy can still win — especially if Trump struggles in October. Democrats are also confident that Rubio’s presidential ambition and conservative position on abortion rights make him vulnerable in a race that only began this month, after the state’s late Aug. 30 primary.

They also point out that unlike Ohio, Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC connected to Sens. Harry Reid and Charles E. Schumer, is still set to resume an $11 million ad campaign this weekend.

Strategists say that if the DSCC abandons Florida, it will be as much about the size of the state as Murphy’s viability. The amount of money it takes to make a dent in Florida can be better spent on Senate races in cheaper states.

And, indeed, the DSCC this month announced multimillion-dollar investments in the Missouri, North Carolina, and Indiana Senate races — each considered a marquee 2016 battleground.

“Do you spend $20 million here or do you spend $20 million in four or five other states?” Schale asked. “That’s always the problem for a Florida-based campaign.”

The GOP’s cash edge has allowed Rubio’s allies, like the Mitch McConnell-connected Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, to launch on-air attacks questioning whether Murphy exaggerated his background as a certified public accountant and a small businessman. The ads are rooted in a series of damaging media reports about the congressman, including a widely viewed story on a CBS-affiliate station in Miami. (The Murphy campaign points out that some of the attacks have been proven inaccurate.)

The Rubio campaign has also released three Spanish-language radio and TV ads, targeting a key constituency it believes the senator must perform well with to make sure he earns a higher share of the vote than Trump. The Murphy campaign, meanwhile, released its first Spanish-language ad this week.

Hispanic voters a priority

“Doing well with Hispanic voters is a huge priority of ours,” said Alex Conant, a Rubio adviser. “It’s something that’s central to our strategy.”

Some Democrats are holding out hope that the DSCC will eventually make a large investment in Florida — the committee is still slated to begin running ads there on Oct. 18. Even Rubio’s campaign expects the race will tighten, and Democrats hope that if it’s close enough, the committee will spend big money there.

In a state as large as Florida, there’s almost no limit to how much the DSCC could spend if it wanted to do so.

“If we had more money than any Senate race in history, we would still just scratch the surface of all the communicating we could do in a big state like Florida,” said Josh Wolf, Murphy’s campaign manager.