After Easy Win, Rubio Has Bigger Challenge to Keep Seat

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential aspirations and insistence that he was done with the Senate didn’t hurt him with GOP voters, now it’s time to see if the rest of Florida will be as forgiving as he seeks a second term.

Rubio easily won the Republican nomination to retain his seat and will be challenged by Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who defeated Congressman Alan Grayson in Tuesday’s Senate primary. It’s a race Democrats are targeting in an effort to regain a majority in the Senate, and their hope is that Rubio’s presidential ambitions have dulled the shine he had with Florida voters.

In other races Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown lost a primary as she faces felony fraud charges. It will end her 24-year congressional career as former state Sen. Al Lawson is almost assured of replacing her in the heavily Democratic district. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who resigned last month as Democratic National Committee chairwoman, fended off the first serious challenge she’s faced since winning office in 2004 by beating Tim Canova, a Bernie Sanders-backed law professor.

Rubio and Murphy have already been giving a preview of the general election match up, with each candidate focusing on each other rather than their primary opponents in the weeks leading up to the nominating contest.

Murphy says Rubio cares more about political ambition than voters and can’t even commit to serving all six years in the Senate if he wins, and Rubio says Murphy is a privileged son of a wealthy man who has lied about his education, work experience and starting a small business.

“He’s going to have to account for his four years in Congress, where he was ranked by a non-partisan group as one of the most ineffective members,” Rubio said after winning. “That’s a hard thing to achieve in a Congress that’s been as ineffective as this one has been over the last 10 years.”

Murphy also immediately attacked Rubio after his victory.

“Senator Rubio is trying to distract from his terrible record. Here’s a guy who has missed more votes than any senator from Florida in nearly 50 years. He told us he doesn’t like the job and just yesterday he told us he said he won’t commit to a six-year term,” Murphy said.

There is evidence that the presidential run has taken a toll on Rubio. A Quinnipiac University poll taken before he announced his presidential campaign showed a 54 percent job approval with voters, compared to 35 percent disapproval. After he announced he’d seek a second Senate term, those numbers dipped to 46 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval.

Democratic party leaders felt Murphy, a former Republican, has the best chance in the general election. He was backed in the primary by President Barack Obama and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Florida three times to campaign with Murphy. Grayson, a fiery liberal who often makes headlines with brash statements, was seen as too inflammatory to win over a state that tends to support moderate candidates.

But Murphy is still largely unknown in Florida and outside Republican groups began running negative ads against him weeks ago. Until Rubio decided in June to seek another term, it was expected that Murphy’s Republican challenger would also be a lesser known candidate.

Rubio will start the contest with the advantage of already having won a statewide election in a state with more than 12 million voters. Still, Rubio’s chances of re-election could rely heavily on the presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. If Clinton wins by a large margin, it could hurt Rubio in the state Obama carried in 2008 and 2012.

Rubio has half-heartedly endorsed Trump, but says he won’t campaign with him. Murphy has repeatedly pointed out that Rubio called Trump a conman who can’t be trusted, but now supports him.

Democrats hope to gain seats in Florida’s heavily Republican U.S. House delegation after court-mandated redistricting chipped away the advantages of some incumbents.

Florida had to rip up and redraw its congressional maps after they were found to violate the state constitution’s provision requiring compact districts that don’t favor incumbents or political parties. That spurred one of the state’s most heavily contested congressional election years. Florida will eventually send at least eight new House members to Washington.

Republicans now outnumber Democrats 17-10 in the state’s congressional delegation. If Democrats sweep all four seats seen as competitive in November, that Republican advantage could be reduced to 14-13.

One of those is now held by U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Republican who was expected to win Tuesday, but who would then have to beat former Gov. Charlie Crist, who used to be a Republican but is now a Democrat.

___

Associated Press writers Terry Spencer in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and Mike Schneider in Kissimmee, Florida, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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