Florida Democrats Already Eyeing Rubio's Senate Seat Ahead of His Presidential Decision

Democrats are deep in talks about which candidates could (or should) run in 2016 as the Republican incumbent's potential White House run looms.

The last of 2014's Senate races hasn't even been decided yet, but in Florida, the Senate race two years down the road is already attracting serious attention, both from Democrats hungry to retake the seat and Republicans wondering what might be in store if Sen. Marco Rubio announces in a few months that he's running for president.

Florida is a swing Senate state no matter who runs. But Rubio's eventual announcement of whether he's bidding for the White House, and thus leaving his Senate seat open, could offer an especially enticing opportunity for Democrats once again licking their wounds after losing the gubernatorial race this year, the latest in a string of setbacks for the state party that have left it without a long bench of viable statewide candidates.

For Florida Democrats, the next Senate race could be a shot at redemption, and because of Rubio, it may become one of the fastest-evolving Senate campaigns in the country in 2015. Democratic fundraisers and strategists still smarting from election night report having already met with possible contestants about 2016, and they believe those candidates have no time to lose.

"It's fair to say these conversations have to be had now, as we come off an election that exposed a lot of infrastructure issues within the Democratic Party," one strategist said. Despite numerous disappointments for his party this time around, he's among several Florida Democrats who suggested their few bright spots in 2014 offer big opportunities in 2016.

Top on their lists are just-reelected freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy, who carried nearly 60 percent of the vote in a district Mitt Romney won in 2012, and Rep.-elect Gwen Graham, the daughter of well-liked former Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham who unseated Republican Rep. Steve Southerland in a GOP-leaning Panhandle district. Both have been strong fundraisers and would have the advantage of congressional incumbency, though strategists suggested the turnaround could be more difficult for Graham, given that she won her first elected office not even two weeks ago.

"Murphy is like the golden child, he's young, he's attractive, he's moderate, he just won a huge race in a Republican seat in a Republican year," said Democratic consultant Ben Pollara. "Nobody really thought Patrick was a serious guy when he first announced his congressional campaign, and now I don't think there's anybody who doesn't think he's a serious guy."

(For his part, Murphy told National Journal after his reelection, "I don't put any thought into that.")

After Murphy and Graham, though, the Democratic wish list gets short. Big-city Democratic mayors like Tampa's Bob Buckhorn and Orlando's Buddy Dyer each won praise, but they would start out less well-known than the members of Congress—and they may well be more interested in running for governor in 2018. One strategist points out that some of the state's Democratic mayors "sat on their hands" this past election as Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, whose own career outlook is decidedly murky, was trying to win the governorship.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz has the required fundraising infrastructure and possibly the interest, but strategists and donors alike were skeptical that she could offer statewide appeal after building a partisan reputation in the House and as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

"Unfortunately, the Republicans have a deep farm system—they're like the New York Yankees and the Democrats are like the Toledo Mud Hens," said Florida attorney John Morgan, who called himself a "depressed Democratic donor." Morgan is a fan of Graham and Murphy, but said "the only guy who could really save the party" in such a race would be Graham's father. "That's how desperate the bench is in Florida."

Republicans, meanwhile, aren't operating with the same sense of urgency as Democrats, even though quiet conversation about the race has been going on for some time. For one thing, at the moment, they have a candidate in Rubio. And if he doesn't seek reelection, they have a collection of other statewide officeholders who could step up, plus 17 members of Congress.

Those constitutional officeholders already have some name recognition as well as the proven ability to fundraise, and there are only a few options out there in terms of higher-profile jobs.

"A lot of these Cabinet members and their staff I talk to, they're all looking for higher office and there are only so many seats available. They all can't run for governor" in four years, said one Florida Republican operative. "The only other big seat would be a congressional one, and they're pretty much spoken for. So you hear chatter constantly, people are weighing these things way in advance."

"I've been hearing these rumors for over a year," said former Rubio field director Anthony Bustamante. "I don't see us having that urgency where as Democrats are kind of scrambling to see who they're going to put up next."

Top names include former U.S. Rep. and current state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, both of whom have been elected statewide twice. Putnam has been described as the stronger of the two candidates, but potentially less interested in returning to D.C. Atwater received considerable recognition for his fundraising abilities. State Attorney General Pam Bondi's name also comes up, though most sound skeptical that she would run for Senate.

"Running a statewide campaign in Florida is quite an effort," Bustamante said. "When I worked for Marco, we raised something like $21 million, so I think a lot of the congressional guys stick to their districts."¦ You never hear anyone talking about the Republican congressmen doing anything more than what they're doing now."

GOP Reps. Dennis Ross, Tom Rooney, and Ron DeSantis did earn some mention, though, as did young, term-limited state House Speaker Will Weatherford. (State Senate President Don Gaetz told Scripps Media this fall that he "expect[s] to host a fundraiser for Will Weatherford for governor or U.S. senator sometime in the next five years.") Not only do Republicans have more time to consider the upcoming Senate race, they appear to have more options.