Ex-Demo cop Demings closes in on Republican Rubio in Florida

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WASHINGTON, Sept 26 (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. Representative Val Demings is entering the final weeks of her campaign to oust Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio in a stronger position than many observers in conservative Florida had expected.

Demings, a former Orlando police chief, is the underdog against Rubio, who is seeking his third six-year Senate term and ran unsuccessfully for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Recent polls show Demings closing in on Rubio ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections, even as the state’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis maintains a large lead over Democratic challenger Charlie Crist.

While DeSantis should easily fend off Crist’s challenge, some political observers said Rubio faces a closer race with Demings.

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Control of Congress hangs in the balance on Nov. 8, with Democrats holding slim majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats currently hold the Senate with the narrowest margin possible, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’ decisive vote in a chamber split 50-50 between the parties.

While Republicans are favored to win a House majority, competitive races in states like Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona have boosted Biden’s party’s chances of successfully defending its Senate majority. Demings hopes to add Florida to that list.

Rubio has sought to tie Demings tightly to President Joe Biden, declaring on Twitter last month that she was “just another rubber stamp blaming America first” and accusing Democrats of allowing an increase in the urban crime.

“This race is about Val Demings versus Marco Rubio,” said Christian Slater, communications director for Demings’ campaign. “We have a clear contrast in this race: a cop on pace who is a maverick with voters versus a career politician.”

Demings has raised more campaign funds than Rubio, bringing in $47.2 million to the incumbent’s $36.5 million as of Aug. 3, the latest figures available.

“I see both running hard – anything is possible,” said a Republican strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Rubio will need strong turnout in very conservative Northwest Florida, the strategist added.

Republicans have nominated untested Senate candidates including former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia, TV doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and venture capitalist and author JD Vance in Ohio, as well as nominee far-right Don Bolduc in New Hampshire. Occupying seats like those of Rubio is therefore all the more important for them.

Demings’ allies acknowledge that she faces political headwinds in Florida, including Biden’s low popularity. Biden has lost the key electoral battleground state to Trump by 3 percentage points in 2020. An average of opinion polls released last month puts Demings about 3 percentage points behind Rubio, according to RealClearPolitics.

Demings relied on her 27-year career in law enforcement, identifying herself in ads as “the boss” rather than playing out her six years in the House. Demings also served as one of the Democratic House Managers in Trump’s first Senate impeachment trial of 2020. If elected, Demings would become Florida’s first black U.S. senator. No black women currently sit in the Senate.

Florida Democratic Party adviser Jose Parra said for Demings to win, she would have to increase voter turnout in South Florida, including Rubio’s birthplace of Miami, and attract independents to a wealthy corridor in votes crossing central Florida.

“It will be all about the independents,” Parra said.

(This story deletes paragraphs 3 and 4, which referred to a Biden trip to Florida scheduled for September 27 that was canceled on September 24)

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Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone

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