TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Democrats see a chance to pick up the Florida Senate seat being vacated by Republican Marco Rubio — but only if U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson stays out of the race.
Democratic leaders fear Grayson could spoil the party's chances for capturing the seat by challenging Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy in the primary. Rubio is running for president instead of seeking a second term.
Grayson, who is considering a Senate run, is known for using fiery rhetoric to knock down opponents. He made headlines for describing the GOP health plan as "don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly." He called a Republic opponent "Taliban Dan" in an effort to paint him as a religious extremist, compared the tea party to the Klu Klux Klan and called his estranged wife a gold digger during an explosive divorce.
Democratic leaders see Grayson, 57, as too inflammatory and too liberal to win a general election and have coalesced around Murphy, a 32-year-old accountant in his second congressional term. Party leaders see Murphy, who is the only prominent Democrat in the race so far, as a strong candidate and don't want him bloodied by Grayson's aggressive campaign tactics.
"I can't support Alan Grayson," said Rachel Pienta, a member of the state Democratic Party's executive committee. "If Alan Grayson gets in and if Alan Grayson somehow manages to pull off the primary win, we lose the Senate seat."
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Grayson says he's probably running and will make an announcement in July. And he doesn't care about what party leaders think.
"The only Democrats that matter are the voters. It's clear to me that if there's a contested primary, we'll win. We'll have the black vote, the gay vote, the Hispanic vote, the labor vote and the liberal vote," he said. "We'll have it all."
Former state Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith believes Grayson will be a strong primary candidate, saying he'll appeal to the progressive side of the party. He also said Grayson is good at working crowds, has proven he can raise money and is a fearless campaigner. But a general election would be far more difficult.
"Certainly there are some statements that he's going to have to explain or mitigate," Smith said. "It's problematic."
It's not necessarily his past statements that concern some Democrats. It's what Grayson might say about Murphy.
"A primary with Grayson could be destructive," said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist. "I worry that in a Grayson race, literally anything can happen. We've seen Alan Grayson in the past. He basically called someone a member of the Taliban."
That someone was Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, who defeated Grayson in 2010 after Grayson served one term. In television ads, Grayson's campaign called Webster "Taliban Dan" because of his conservative Christian beliefs. The strategy backfired, and Grayson lost by 18 percentage points. Grayson, a wealthy trial attorney, returned to Congress in 2012 after running in a new, safe Democratic district.
A former Republican, Murphy casts himself as a moderate in a state whose politics tend toward the middle. He isn't discussing the possibility of a Grayson challenge.
"Who knows what all is going to happen? There's so many different scenarios that can play out," Murphy said.
After announcing his campaign in March, Murphy quickly received the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, many of the mayors in Florida's largest cities, and nearly half of Florida's Democrats in the Legislature and U.S. House. Big early support, coupled with a long list of potential candidates who said they won't run, has led to the perception that Democratic leaders wanted Murphy's path cleared.
Grayson dismissed the idea he can't win in a general election. He pointed out that the only Democrat to win two statewide elections in the last eight years is President Barack Obama.
"I don't think anybody considers him as an arch-conservative. The other side depicted him as a far left liberal and he won twice," Grayson said. "I've demonstrated over and over again that progressives can win."
The Rubio seat is not a slam dunk for Democrats; Republicans dominate state politics with huge majorities in the Legislature and have been victors in the past five state gubernatorial elections. On the Republican side, U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis is the only declared candidate. Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera has set up a super PAC to raise money and is traveling the state before formally announcing his plans.
Grayson's public fight with his estranged wife could hurt him among women voters. Lolita Grayson accused the congressman, who's worth $31 million, of cutting off financial support for their four children. She also was temporarily granted a restraining order after a claim he pushed her. Grayson said her behavior has been "bizarre, aggressive and inappropriate" — terms political observers sometimes use to describe Grayson.
Additionally, if a judge grants Lolita Grayson's request to freeze his assets, it could limit his ability to jump-start his Senate campaign with his own money. Grayson said while he has spent his own money in the past, he has a large donor base to work with and support across the county.