Democrats' Republican-Style Problem In Florida

The party may be headed for the type of primary that has wrecked GOP candidates in recent cycles.

Establishment Democrats got exactly what they wanted Monday in Florida, but their jubilation may be short lived.

Rep. Patrick Murphy on Monday officially joined Florida's 2016 Senate election, giving the national Democratic party its preferred candidate for what promises to be one of the election's most contested races. At 31, Murphy is a charismatic centrist backed by the party elite, as well as by pro-business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce. In short, exactly the type of candidate the national party believes is capable of winning the purple-state Senate seat occupied by Republican Marco Rubio.

But before he gets a go at Republicans, Murphy would need to survive a Democratic primary—and that's where the party's pick has a problem: Rep. Alan Grayson.

Grayson is one of the party's foremost firebrands, has a history of mounting nasty primary campaigns and has more than a passing interesting in mounting a Senate campaign of his own. And if he does, Democrats are likely headed toward an ugly, intraparty battle—and there's little the establishment could do to stop it.

After former Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz took their names out of contention last week, Grayson has said the "stars are aligning" for a possible foray into the race, and he's actively polling his chances. He also says he has no interest in stepping aside for Murphy, regardless of what the establishment prefers.

"Patrick's entry into the race doesn't really factor into mine at all," Grayson told National Journal on Friday. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, he said, "hasn't endorsed anybody, Harry Reid hasn't endorsed anybody, and it's not terribly relevant if [they] did, because while we'd all like to have the support of the party, it's the voters who decide these things, not the party. ... This race isn't about who Harry Reid wants to be the next senator from Florida."

In the worst-case scenario for the party leadership, Grayson wages the type of attacks on Murphy that he has aimed at Republicans. In 2010, Grayson put himself in the national spotlight with his highly criticized "Taliban Dan" ad, in which he compared his Republican opponent to radical Islamists. And as a member of Congress, he called Congressional Republicans "knuckle-dragging Neanderthals" and—during the debate over the Affordable Care Act—delivered a bombastic speech on the House floor about the GOP's health care plan. His summary: "Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly."

It's unclear whether Grayson would use that same level of vitriol on a fellow Democrat, but Grayson hasn't been shy about attacking party colleagues. After losing a House primary in 2006, he refused to offer his support to the Democratic candidate in the general election. And Friday, he made it clear he would not be shy about criticizing more moderate members of his party. In this race, he suggested, "the winning strategy in Florida is not for us to run people who are somewhat embarrassed to be Democrats and constantly vote for the other side."

And if Grayson does decide to go after Murphy, establishment Democrats would not be able to stop him by starving his campaign for funding. Grayson has plenty of money on his own. As a frequent radio and TV guest, he has built a national profile with a donor base of more than 160,000 individual contributors, plus an active social media following. With a personal fortune of more than $26 million, he could easily self-fund his way through the race.

Democrats have generally avoided the kind of knock-down, drag-out primary fights that have split the Republican party in recent elections, but following two straight midterm losses, the party's progressive wing has been increasingly vocal about its desire for more populist candidates. And in Florida, it remains to be seen if Democrats can maintain their successful track record of putting forward a united front in Senate elections.

The DSCC confirmed that they would be meeting with Grayson at some point. Grayson said the meeting would occur this week. Officially, both the DSCC and state party have praised Murphy, but stayed neutral on endorsements. "Florida is one of the best pickup opportunities for Democrats in the country," said DSCC spokesman Justin Barasky. "Patrick Murphy is a strong candidate with a record of serving the people of Florida and we're confident that Democrats will win this seat in 2016." Asked whether the group would endorse in this race, he said "it remains to be seen what we'll do in every state that we have not already endorsed in."

But Sen. Jon Tester, the DSCC chairman, made clear that this is not a state he believes can afford blue-on-blue warfare, and at the same time, suggested Murphy would make a "great senator."

In a year where the party has chosen a handful of veteran candidates as it standard-bearers, Murphy is a standout. "He's young, he's a fantastic fundraiser, he's a moderate who has won a tough Republican district who won't have a problem garnering statewide appeal," said one national Democratic strategist.

Asked about a possible primary contest with Grayson, Murphy's camp sent a statement: "Rep. Murphy is receiving tremendous support from Democrats from across the state. He's been a strong advocate for a woman's right to choose and marriage equality in the country, while working to lift up Florida's middle class families. He's looking forward to continuing his conversations about these important issues."

For his part, Grayson called the rumors of widespread Murphy support "annoying."

"Why do you think Patrick would even stay in the race? Based on the way the major Florida groups line up, don't you think that even Patrick would reach the obvious conclusion?" Grayson said. "If it's true that the party doesn't want a contested primary, what makes you think I'd be the one who drops out?"

Some of Grayson's biggest supporters, liberal groups such as Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, also are upset about the party's treatment of Murphy. "Floridians would not take kindly to the DSCC meddling in a Democratic primary for Senate, especially on behalf of someone who has left the door open to cutting Social Security benefits," PCCC co-founder Adam Green said in a statement.

"We've supported Alan Grayson through all of his congressional races. Our members really like him," said Democracy for America's Neil Sroka. "He speaks to a real desire within the base of the Democratic Party to have outspoken leaders against the powerful and wealthy. "¦ We just want to make sure that there's a free and open debate of ideas without the national party getting in and trying to decide who should and shouldn't run at all."

Democrats' best hope for avoiding a primary may well be Rubio himself. Grayson said he is eyeing what the incumbent does in 2016—run for reelection or give up the seat to run for president—as he considers his own next steps: "I'm not anxious to jump into this without having a better sense of whether Rubio is serious when he says he's not going to run for reelection [if he runs for president], and I think that dynamic is still unfolding."

His national fundraising base and personal wealth means there's no incentive to jump in early, and he wants to be certain of the path of victory, Grayson says.

"It's something I'm not going to take lightly, I like what I do and I'm good at it," Grayson said. "If you lose you're no good to anybody, I discovered that already "¦ I don't see any other way to do this kind of work at the level that I do other than in the House or the Senate or the White House, or maybe as Pope."

As for what could make his House gig a little sweeter: "I'd love to have a bigger role in policy-making in the House," Grayson said. Conveniently, the role he has in mind, chairing the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, is one that will likely be vacant soon due to Rep. Donna Edwards's Senate bid. "Given what I already do, which is to basically put my fingerprints on dozens of bills as they pass through the House ... it would be my dream job to be able to have that kind of role in policy-making for the party, so that would certainly make a difference for me."