In the battle for the Senate, Democrats are off to a strong start. They've recruited two well-liked former officeholders to run in key Ohio and Wisconsin battleground races. Early polling shows many of their challengers running competitively. Other brand-name recruits, such as New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan and former Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, are waiting in the wings. But threatening to upend their early successes is an outspoken, acerbic congressman in Florida whose volatility is legendary and who could blow up the party's best-laid plans.
Rep. Alan Grayson is the Todd Akin of the Democrats—except that he's louder, more outrageous, and has millions of his own fortune to spend however he sees fit. And Democrats are nervously expecting the former trial lawyer to enter the pivotal Senate race, challenge the candidate party leaders view as more electable, and raise holy hell in the process.
For Democrats, what makes his candidacy more threatening than amusing is the sheer number of ways his candidacy could directly cost them control of the Senate. Winning Florida is crucial to Democrats' hopes of taking back the majority; without it, the path to winning at least the four seats necessary becomes much more difficult. (Democrats need to net at least four seats to win back control of the Senate, and Hotline ranks Florida the fourth-most likely GOP-held seat to flip.) He's consistently shown that he's willing to attack both Democratic and Republican opponents in the most confrontational ways possible, a dynamic that could wound Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy even if he comfortably wins the nomination. As worrisome, his presence would percolate beyond Florida's borders, giving Republicans soundbite material to use against other Senate candidates—along the lines of what the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee brilliantly did against Akin in 2012.
The list of Grayson's greatest hits is long—and contains equal-opportunity vitriol against Republicans, Democrats, and reporters alike. He reportedly called Murphy a "piece of shit" when recently meeting with DSCC Chairman Jon Tester. In the run-up to a 2010 landslide loss against GOP Rep. Daniel Webster, he aired an ad labeling his opponent as "Taliban Dan" and, without basis, accused him of wanting to outlaw divorce for abused women. Grayson called a Federal Reserve adviser a "K Street whore" and told MSNBC's Chris Matthews that Dick Cheney has blood "dripping from his teeth" when talking. He threatened a conservative constituent with five years of prison time for launching a website titled mycongressmanisnuts.com. Most recently, he asked Tampa Bay Times political reporter Adam Smith whether he was some kind of "shitting robot" when confronted with questions surrounding his offshore investments.
Grayson also is enmeshed in an ugly divorce battle with his wife of 24 years, who has accused him of domestic abuse. He's vigorously denied the allegations, and has accused her of engaging in bigamy and being a "gold digger."
"On a professional level, before he went to Congress he was a wealthy trial lawyer looking for fights to make a living. That's what he had to do. In 2010 [when he lost his first reelection], Alan Grayson proved to me that when the going got tough, he completely lost control," said Florida-based Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who led President Obama's campaigns in the state. "My gut says Grayson's looking for a fight. This is a guy whose entire career has been based on looking for a bully to hit. If he says he's probably going to run for the Senate, he's probably going to run for the Senate."
The tricky calculus for the DSCC, which endorsed Murphy early in a bid to dissuade Grayson from running, is that Grayson is so unpredictable that it's hard to plot a strategy designed to limit his destructiveness. Most Senate candidates wouldn't want to give up a cushy lifetime Congressional job to make a long-shot bid at higher office. But Grayson is independently wealthy—the 17th-richest member of Congress, with assets of around $25 million—and derives his prestige through provocation.
Democrats normally have many tools to marginalize a weak candidate, but few of the traditional rules apply to Grayson. He's unlikely to be swayed by promises of subcommittee chairmanships or increased funding in his Orlando-area district. Attacking him as unelectable will only raise his profile further, and amp up the already-explosive rhetoric between the two sides. Schale argued that the DSCC's move endorsing Murphy to unify the party against Grayson is likely to backfire, and raise the odds he jumps in the race.
Making the strategy even more complicated is that Murphy is vulnerable to a challenge on his left. Representing a swing district that voted for Mitt Romney, Murphy has voting record that is one of the most conservative in his caucus. He boasts an 86 percent lifetime vote score with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a better tally than many House Republicans. He's still unknown to most Florida Democrats, given that he represents only a small slice of the expansive state. In fact, Quinnipiac's April survey found Grayson somewhat better-known than Murphy, and despite the controversies, holding a net positive favorability rating.
Murphy's out-of-character move to side with his party's populist flank on the fast-track trade authority is a sign of how seriously he views Grayson's challenge on the left. Grayson may be unelectable in a general election, but he still counts devoted fans on the progressive wing, who admire his acerbic rants against Republicans.
Republicans are fully aware of the damage that extreme candidates can play on the larger political landscape. GOP strategists feared that if Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel defeated Sen. Thad Cochran in last year's primary, his long trail of offensive comments would haunt other GOP candidates and further damage the party's already-battered brand. Two years earlier, Akin's verbal blundering was a top factor for why the GOP badly underperformed expectations that year, losing two Senate seats. His comments coincided with near all-time lows in the party's overall favorability ratings. None of these insurgents were amenable to advice from party leaders and strategists, whose interests were at odds with these conservative rabble-rousers.
Senate Democrats have avoided the intra-party contentiousness, at least in races that are competitive in the general election. They've faced little resistance to their strategy of anointing a favorite candidate and watching any opposition dissipate. But if Grayson moves on with a Senate campaign, he'd be a glaring exception to the rule—and his force of personality would ensure his antics wouldn't necessarily be confined to Florida.
"If you're Russ Feingold, it would be a distraction. Every day any Democratic campaign could have to respond to what a guy in Florida said, it's a problem," said Schale. "There's a reason why Republicans want Alan Grayson run for the U.S. Senate."
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