Rubio Sticks With Trump; Murphy Needs Momentum
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Sen. Marco Rubio stood behind Donald Trump this week, but he didn’t stand up with him.
The junior senator didn’t appear at any of the four rallies the GOP nominee held across the state. Dozens of other Republicans have withdrawn their support from Trump's flagging campaign in the wake of a published video of him uttering lewd comments about women and saying he made unwanted sexual advances.
Rubio did not join those who fled the campaign, but in a tweet Friday, he did condemn Trump’s comments. In a statement Tuesday, Rubio said that while he had rejected Trump's "offensive rhetoric and behavior" and wished there were "better choices for President,” he viewed Trump as the lesser of two evils.
Trump barreled through Florida in the past three days, hoping to galvanize supporters in a critical swing state and stem the bleeding that began when the Washington Post published the controversial video. Democrats have intensified their efforts to link down-ballot Republicans to Trump in the wake of the video's release, hoping the nominee’s falling poll numbers will hurt GOP senators at the polls.
Rep. Patrick Murphy, who’s running against Rubio, was no different.
“Marco Rubio is continuing to double down and go in the complete opposite direction of so many others who have the courage and fortitude to stand up,” the Democratic lawmaker said in an interview with RealClearPolitics. “It reeks of pure partisanship, selfishness, putting his own political ambitions in front of what’s best for Florida.”
Murphy has tried to increase his visibility this week, appearing with Hillary Clinton at a major rally in Miami Tuesday morning and holding a press conference here Wednesday with Sen. Chris Murphy and victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting to mark the four-month anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. There, he said Rubio is in the pocket of the National Rifle Association for opposing gun control measures that came to a vote in the Senate earlier this year.
But while Patrick Murphy is hoping newfound momentum for Clinton and against Trump translates down the ticket to the Senate race, he’s facing a major problem in the final four weeks of the campaign: lack of resources.
National Democratic groups, which originally intended to spend more than $20 million in this Senate race, have pulled most of the money they had reserved for the final weeks of the campaign. The Democratic Senatorial Committee and Senate Majority PAC have spent just over $4 million for Murphy, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has only one final week of television reserved there. The Senate Majority PAC pulled the last of its money out of the state a week ago, just hours before the revelation of the video showing Trump’s comments about women.
Some Florida Democrats are frustrated the national groups are abandoning Murphy in favor of other competitive states with cheaper advertising.
“I think we could win,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, an early Murphy supporter. “It’s not going to be easy,” he added, but Democratic groups should spend every dollar they originally intended “if they’re interested in preventing Marco Rubio from running for president four years of now, which he clearly will be.”
“I think they had committed to [Murphy] and had put some money in advance in anticipation -- had bought time. I think Murphy was counting on that,” Buckhorn said. “When they take TV money, that really sends him out with one hand behind his back."
But for national Democrats, it was a decision borne out of necessity with races in the relatively inexpensive states of Missouri, North Carolina, and Indiana appearing as competitive, or more so, than Florida. They reallocated much of the money to those campaigns, seeking to ride red-leaning states to the Senate majority. The fact that those decisions came just before Trump’s poll numbers began to drop significantly was simply unfortunate timing for them.
“How could they have known that this tape was out there and this kind of bottoming out would happen?” said a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “I understand why people would say it’s too bad they pulled back, now it's going to be closer, but given the information they had at time,” it was the right decision.
Steve Schale, a longtime Florida Democratic strategist, said he had been concerned for some time that the national groups might abandon Florida for cheaper waters, especially once Rubio re-entered the race in June and showed a consistent, if relatively minor, lead in the polls.
“You’re always running a risk that the senatorial committee or congressional committee is looking at it and going, ‘We can get to our same goal but through several other paths,’ and frankly, that’s what happened here,” Schale said.
He said that there are ways Murphy can make up for the lack of resources, suggesting the campaign would be best served by targeting specific groups of voters, such as Hispanics, and hoping to improve his margins there while hoping that other groups, such as moderate Republicans turned off by Trump, back away from Rubio as well.
“That’s all you can do,” Schale said. “Pick a path and a little bit of prayer, frankly."
Still, Democrats are hoping that the lack of resources doesn’t spell the end of their chances in Florida. Most Democrats said the campaign was still winnable, and Republicans agreed that Florida would remain competitive to the end, even with their massive money advantage. GOP groups have spent more than $25 million in the race compared to just under $8 million for Democrats, and Rubio raised $9.6 million in the third fundraising quarter compared to $3.3 million for Murphy.
Murphy insisted his campaign would have what it needed to be competitive over the final four weeks.
“We’re going to have the resources; I’m confident in that,” Murphy said. “We’ve been here before. We’ve been outspent. Values matter, character matters, integrity and the issues all matter, so we’re going to make sure we have the resources ... to get that message out."
Other Democrats, however, said Murphy’s best hope was that Trump’s campaign would bottom out and drag Rubio down with him. They argued Rubio was hardly rushing to Trump’s defense, tweeting condemnation for the video Friday and waiting until Tuesday to reiterate his support. And they pointed out that Rubio kept a sparse campaign schedule throughout week, not appearing with Trump at all and holding no public campaign events -- though he wasn’t exactly in hiding, as he attended several official events, including surveying damage to neighborhoods hit by Hurricane Matthew last week.
Rubio’s campaign was confident the renewed effort by Democrats to link his campaign to Trump’s would prove unsuccessful.
“The primary thing is he’s just very focused on his own race,” said Alex Conant, a senior Rubio strategist. “He has not campaigned with Trump so far and he won’t campaign with Trump over the next four weeks. He’s really focused on his own race.
“That’s been a line of attack for them ever since Marco said he’d run for re-election in June, and it hasn’t worked,” Conant added of the Trump attacks. “The differences between the two of them are well established here in Florida."
Still, there are opportunities for Democrats to link Rubio to the GOP ticket. Rubio is scheduled to appear at a Florida GOP dinner in Tampa Saturday with Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Conant declined to preview Rubio’s remarks other than to say he would make the case for his re-election. It will be his first major appearance since the video of Trump surfaced, and the first debate in the race is the following Monday.
Republicans argued there’s no evidence that any of Trump’s problems caused an issue for Rubio -- Trump trails Clinton by 3.2 percentage points in the RCP average of the Sunshine State, while Rubio leads Murphy by 4.9 percentage points. Recent polls have shown Rubio’s lead as narrow as 2 percentage points, but a new poll conducted after the video surfaced and the second presidential debate Sunday showed Rubio up 4 points.
“I don’t think trying to link him to Trump or Trump’s statements, or make his support of Trump a campaign issue, is going to decide the election,” said a GOP operative working on down-ballot races. “It’s not going to work. Trying to tie one candidate to a separate candidate is one of the least effective tactics in politics.”
There was some evidence of that. At Trump’s rally in Lakeland, Fla., Wednesday, several voters said they were disappointed Rubio hadn’t done more to support Trump recently. But none of them told RCP they wouldn’t vote for Rubio because of it.
“Let’s just say I don’t feel great about him,” Kay Jewell-Steward, a retired schoolteacher, said of Rubio. But she added, "I’m going to vote for him because he’s a Republican.”
Harold and Sandra Vick, a married couple who are both retired, said they were “disappointed” in Rubio for not voicing stronger support for Trump, saying he had been “neutral.” But they also said they wished Republicans who withdrew support had taken similar tactics to Rubio instead of voicing outright opposition to Trump. Both added that they would vote for Rubio even if he withdrew his support from Trump entirely.
“I voted for Marco last time and I liked him. I’m disappointed in him but I’ll vote for him again,” said Diana Lovchuck, a retired business owner from Apollo Beach.
“He’s a Johnny come lately,” said Pat Kiehn, a retired saleswoman from Sarasota. “When Trump needed him, he backed out and kind of turned that little knife in his back.”
But she, too, said she’d still vote for Rubio.
For some Democrats, the hope is now that Trump’s campaign continues to struggle and that frustration with him depresses Republican turnout. Lower GOP turnout could hurt Republicans down the ballot more than defections from avid Trump backers.
“I think Republican turnout is going to drop a ton given the air coming out of his campaign … and if Hillary can run up a bigger margin, maybe it is enough to pull Murphy over,” said the Democratic leadership aide. “I don’t think it’s a done deal by any stretch.”