The Democratic Party's hopes of picking up a U.S. Senate seat in Florida appear to rest on voter's opinion of Donald Trump.
At a debate Wednesday night between candidates for the seat currently held by Senator Marco Rubio, the incumbent came under repeated attack by his challenger for his endorsement of the Republican nominee.
To almost every debate question, Democratic Party candidate, U.S. Representative Patrick Murphy worked the subject around to ask Rubio why he still stood by Trump.
"Senator Rubio has lost all credibility in my opinion by supporting Donald Trump in this election," Murphy said in answer to a question about the war in Syria, noting the New York billionaire's alleged ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin. "You've got to be able to stand up to Donald Trump if you care about national security," added Murphy.
Murphy has largely based his campaign on seeking to exploit Rubio's support for Trump - albeit lukewarm - noting that Rubio dismissed Trump as a "con-man" in the primary campaign, saying he was "unfit" to possess the president's nuclear codes.
Rubio has maintained an ambiguous position towards Trump, declining to campaign for the real estate tycoon despite endorsing him as the party's candidate. Trump repeatedly insulted Rubio during the primary campaign calling him "Little Marco," though he has been friendlier since winning the nomination.
Democrats need to unseat Rubio in their quest to take back control of the U.S. Senate, where Republicans currently hold an eight seat majority. But Rubio is the darling of conservative Cuban Americans in Miami who could help boost turnout for Trump in a close race for the key swing state.
Rubio, a veteran of local, state and national politics, announced he was running for re-election after a failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He has consistently held a lead in polls over Murphy, a less well-known member of Congress for an east coast district of Florida including Palm Beach County. The son of a wealthy Miami constructor, Murphy is a relative newcomer and two term congressman who lacks political pedigree.
The one hour debate covered a wide range of issues from the Middle East to health care, policing, and Cuba policy, and was more substantial than the three presidential debates. almost to the point of getting wonkish. A question about healthcare got so far into confusing detail it was hard to imagine many voters following the back and forth between the candidates. One thing was clear however: Rubio said he would tear up the Affordable Healthcare Act, while Murphy was in favor of protecting it.
Rubio attacked Murphy for supporting President Barack Obama's normalizing of relations with Havana, and lashed out at the administration's abstention Wednesday in a vote on the U.S. embargo against Cuba at the United Nations, calling it "nothing short of lawlessness."
Pointing out that the embargo was an act of Congress, he went on: "you can't just ignore the laws of the country the way this administration habitually does."
Murphy's other favorite line of attack was Rubio's notoriously poor attendance record during his six years in the Senate, comparing that to his own 97 per cent voting record in the House of Representative. "If you voted as much as you lied you might actually be a good Senator," Murphy said in one of the toughest blows of the night.
Rubio responded by questioning Murphy's lack of concrete achievements during his four years in Congress, contrasting that to his own sponsorship of legislation. "I have proven I can get things done," he said. Rubio also sought to undermine Murphy's record as a certified public accountant before entering Congress, noting that he was not licensed in Florida and accusing him of being "a serial embellisher" of his CV.
Murphy appears to face an uphill task on Nov 8, with polls showing Rubio leading by 3.6 per cent in an average of polls calculated by Real Clear Politics, though it considers the race a toss-up.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reportedly yanked millions in ad funding from the state earlier this month, apparently in a sign that Murphy's race was lost.
But some key Democrats have not given up. Murphy has recently gotten heavyweight reinforcements on the campaign trail, including President Barack Obama and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. On a swing through Florida this week, Clinton urged voters to back Murphy. "Unlike his opponent," she said at a rally Tuesday in Coconut Creek, "Patrick Murphy has never been afraid to stand up to Donald Trump."
“How can you call him a con artist and dangerous and object to all the controversial things he says and say I am still going to vote for him?” Obama quipped. “C’mon, man. You know what that is. It is the height of cynicism.”
Once a media golden boy, Rubio has also faced a barrage of criticism from Florida news outlets since getting back in the Senate race. “It seems he will do or say anything to stay in office, even swallow his pride and vote for a presidential candidate he clearly detests, all to advance his own political ambitions" said Michael Putney, a veteran political reporter with the ABC News affiliate in Miami. "How low can you go?"
The Miami Herald newspaper also abandoned its past endorsements of Rubio over his support for Trump. "How can voters believe he’s sincere when he says he does not share Mr. Trump’s awful views on Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, women, etc., yet — at the same time — stands by his endorsement of the New York billionaire?" the paper wrote in an editorial endorsement of Murphy.