By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
In the Sunshine State, the Senate race is already blazing.
Last Tuesday (Aug. 23), after easily winning the Democratic nomination for Senate in Florida, Rep. Val Demings, 65, the first female police chief of the Orlando police department. came out swinging:
We're not going back. We're not. There are women and men, and people of all races and ages who suffered, bled, and died for us to have the constitutional rights that we enjoy. We're not going back to being treated like second-class citizens. We're not going back to being treated like property. We will continue to fight and fight and fight some more for a woman's right to choose and you believe in that America.
Demings, a third-term congresswoman, is challenging Florida’s popular current senator, conservative Republican Marco Rubio, 51, who has held that seat since 2011. If she wins, Demings would become the first Black senator in Florida’s history.
Rubio, born in Miami to Cuban parents, served as speaker of the Florida House of
Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010. In 2015, he sought the Republican candidacy for president, but subsequently suspended his campaign after losing the Florida primary to Donald Trump. Backtracking, he successfully ran for re-election to the Senate instead. Rubio has been a consistent Trump ally ever since.
Florida is one of the most politically divided states in the country, its last three governors’ races being decided by one percentage point or less. Nevertheless, in 2016, Rubio won re-election by almost eight percentage points. For the first time in modern history, Florida has more registered Republicans than Democrats.
Florida’s race this year may not be the Democrats' top priority; they may see Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and North Carolina as stronger opportunities to pick up a treasured Senate seat because of the GOP’s choice of ultra-extreme candidates in those states.
But failure to make Florida a priority along with these other states would be short-sighted. Like those other states, the Florida senate seat could ensure the Democrats’ continued control of the Senate. With that body currently split 50-50 between parties, Democrats currently maintain control only because of the Vice President’s ability to break ties. Loss of even one Democratic seat would give control to the GOP.
Demings is proving to be a force to be reckoned with. As one of her campaign staff members bragged to the press a day after her win, “She’s fierce, strong, tough, she’s no-nonsense, she tells it like it is.” Demings’ campaign is trying to reinforce this view of her with an image of Rubio as weak and slick.
According to the Federal Election Commission as of August 23, Demings has out-fundraised Marco Rubio—raising $47 million as opposed to Rubio’s $36 million.
A poll of likely voters conducted by the nonpartisan Center Street PAC from August 12-14, had Rubio with 52 percent of support as opposed to Demings’ 41 percent. But a University of North Florida poll, conducted August 8-12, found Demings holding a four-point lead over Rubio—48 percent for Demings versus 44 percent for Rubio. At a minimum, these varying numbers in roughly the same time period suggest that the state’s voters may be up for grabs.
Furthermore, Demings’ appealing backstory makes her a strong candidate. She is one of seven children; her father was a janitor and her mother a maid, giving her strong working-class cred to draw voters. Demings spent 27 years in the Orlando Police Department and was the department’s first female chief from 2007-2011. During her tenure as police chief, there was an impressive 40% decrease in violent crime.
Further enhancing her resume, Demings was selected by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to serve as one of the impeachment managers in the first Senate trial of Donald Trump, and was on the short list to be Joe Biden’s vice-presidential running mate in 2020.
The Supreme Court’s evisceration of Roe v. Wade in June has made women’s rights over their own bodies and civil rights in general increasingly important midterm issues. Demings’ positions on those matters are clear. In various years, she has received 100 percent voting scores from the ACLU, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
While maintaining that gun control legislation is not about taking guns away from responsible law-abiding people, Demings supported the Gun Violence Restraining Order Act of 2017, which would have provided for temporary confiscation of firearms from people thought to be a threat to themselves or others. In an act of obvious sanity, she has also opposed arming teachers, whom she has maintained would find themselves “outskilled and outgunned” in a shooter situation.
The GOP may attempt to use those firearms stands against her. But they will find Demings’ bona fides concerning law enforcement are unassailable.
Echoing a frequent campaign theme of hers that is likely to be repeated often this fall, Demings said to the crowd after her win, “Together, I really do believe this daughter of a maid and janitor who is not supposed to be standing here tonight — I really do believe that together we can do anything.”
The Democratic Party needs to believe that too, and make her race as much a priority as those in any of the swing states. Democracy needs every Democratic win it can get.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.