Florida Man Threatens Democratic Senate Hopes

Could outspoken Representative Alan Grayson torpedo the party’s chance to capture Marco Rubio’s seat?

Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

The road to a Democratic majority in the Senate is a narrow one, and it runs through Florida. Marco Rubio is running for president, so he can’t run for reelection, freeing up his seat—and in a swing state like Florida, with the more Democratic-friendly electorate of a presidential cycle, there’s a good chance Democrats can win.

If they have the right candidate, of course.

That’s where Alan Grayson comes in. Democrats have had a rough run in Florida recently. In 2010, their candidate was walloped in a three-way Senate race that Rubio won—Governor Charlie Crist ran as an independent after losing the Republican primary; Democrat Kendrick Meek finished a distant third. That same year, Alex Sink lost a close race for governor to Rick Scott. In early 2014, Sink lost a special election for the seat of deceased Representative C. W. “Bill” Young. In fall 2014, Crist—by now a Democrat—lost the governor’s race to Scott, even though the incumbent was strongly disliked.

The remedy, state and national Democrats believe, is Patrick Murphy, a young two-term representative who reached office after defeating Representative Allen West—as fiery and controversial a Republican as Grayson is a Democrat—in 2012. Murphy is a notably moderate Democrat (he was previously a Republican), but he’s a polished candidate who showed he could win in a closely divided district. Party leaders marked him for great things. Early polls show him leading the top Republican candidates.

Then Grayson announced his decision to run. He’s the famously (or infamously) loudmouthed U.S. representative from Orlando—the guy who, during the healthcare-reform debate said the Republican health plan was “Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.” Grayson has a long history of similarly inflammatory or hotheaded comments, which he says is evidence that he’s willing to fight for his principles. The wealthy liberal is serving his third term, but it’s nonconsecutive—elected in 2008, he was defeated in 2010 and then returned to Congress in the 2012 election.

How big a threat to Murphy is Grayson? That’s a tough call. There’s not a great deal of good polling in the race. Several earlier polls showed a close race. A poll in early July from Gravis Marketing showed Grayson leading Murphy by an astonishing 63-19 margin. It’s probably best not to put too much stock in that result—it’s early, it’s an outlier, and Gravis’s track record is, um, not sterling.

But Grayson has one big advantage: He’s willing to say anything. In particular, he’ll deliver inflammatory quotes left and right about anything and anyone, allowing him to effectively tap into the Democratic id. Or in his own, typically modest words, “Voters will crawl naked over hot coals to vote for me. And that's something that no other candidate in either party can say.” That also means he has strong fundraising potential from the grassroots, though he’s also independently wealthy. His act might play well in a Democratic primary, but could he win a general election in a purple state? The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee seems unconvinced. The DSCC praised Murphy in a statement when Grayson officially entered the race last week, but didn’t even mention Grayson’s name.

Meanwhile, Grayson is in the midst of a messy split from Lolita Grayson, his wife of 25 years. The couple has five children but separated in 2014. She filed for divorce and accused him of domestic violence, a charge on which he was cleared. In response, he sued for an annulment, saying her divorce from a previous marriage was not valid when they wed, making their own union therefore bigamous and invalid. They were near an agreement but then hit a snag, and when asked about it, Grayson replied, “I’ll sum it up for you. Gold diggers gotta dig. That’s all I gotta say.” On Tuesday, however, a judge finally ruled that Alan and Lolita Grayson were never legally married.

(The race to succeed Grayson in the House could be a wild one, too: Among the potential Democratic candidates are Grayson’s district director, his girlfriend, and a state senator favored by the party.)

The danger for Democrats is that Grayson becomes a sort of Todd Akin of the left. Akin, the controversial Missouri representative who won the Republican nomination for Senate in 2012, lost the general election after a series of controversial comments. Like Akin, Grayson has shown he can get elected in his own district, and like Akin, he may even be able to win a primary, where his party’s most ideologically voters cast ballots. But like Akin, he has a tendency to make outrageous, ill-advised statements, and it’s harder to imagine him winning a statewide general election. Alternatively, Grayson could lose the primary but badly injure Murphy in the process. He’s never shown any compunctions about attacking opponents in his own party almost as harshly as he does Republicans—though Mark Pinsky makes a case that he may have moderated slightly.

“Murphy’s people should be scared because the problem with Alan Grayson is he just doesn’t give a damn,” Democratic consultant Screven Watson told Politico.
“Grayson doesn’t do things the way normal candidates do them. His campaigns aren’t normal campaigns.”

If there’s any relief for Democrats, it might come from the same place it has come for them in past Senate races: the Republican Party. The GOP could have a crowded, intense primary of its own. Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a friend of Rubio’s and also a son of Cuban immigrants, is running. Representative Ron DeSantis, a hard-right conservative from north Florida who has the backing of national groups, is running to Lopez-Cantera’s right. His House colleague Jeff Miller is likely to run, and a recent decision by the state supreme court striking down a redistricting plan seems to have also pushed Representative David Jolly—who beat Sink in that 2014 special election—into the Senate race, since his constituency now looks less friendly to a Republican.

Democrats are hoping for a war between DeSantis and more establishment candidates, creating an ugly race that will wound Republicans and distract from the Democrats’ drama. Of course, one plausible (if not likely) result is that the nominees could be Grayson and DeSantis. It would be a battle for Senate between two candidates often described as too extreme for statewide office. Marc Caputo, a top Florida political reporter, describes the Democratic primary as a “nightmare” and the Republican primary as a potential “bloodbath.” What could be more in keeping with Florida’s reputation than that?