Eight months after his presidential hopes ended with an overwhelming loss in his home state, Republican Marco Rubio was re-elected Tuesday to a second term in the U.S. Senate by Florida voters.
“This is a lot better than the last time I did one of these in Miami,” Rubio said, opening his victory speech by recalling his loss last spring in the Florida presidential primary.
“Florida is America,” he added, “and it’s such an honor to be able to represent this extraordinary state.”
Rubio, though, quickly turned serious and called for healing following the harsh election season that has so sharply divided the nation.
“We can disagree on issues, but we cannot share a country where people hate one another,” he said.
Rubio said it was time for Americans to “channel that anger and frustration into something positive.”
Rubio defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter in a race heavily shaded by the politics of the presidential contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Murphy conceded to Rubio by phone from his Palm Beach Gardens campaign party.
“Sen. Rubio and I have our differences,” Murphy told supporters. “But it’s important to put those differences aside and do what’s best for the people of Florida.”
“While we hoped for a different result, the people of Florida have spoken and I respect their choice.”
Murphy campaigned with President Obama during the election’s closing weekend, while Rubio endorsed but kept his distance from Trump throughout the campaign. Trump carried 66 of Florida’s 67 counties in defeating Rubio in the state’s presidential primary last March.
Murphy was outspent by Rubio and his supporters, with national Democratic spending committees refusing to invest much money in the race, instead steering dollars to other Senate battlegrounds in their bid to regain control of the chamber, an outcome still uncertain late Tuesday.
The Rubio-Murphy contest also was largely devoid of much focus on issues.
Instead, Rubio cast Murphy as ill-prepared for the U.S. Senate, with little to show for two terms in the U.S. House, representing a northern Palm Beach County-Treasure Coast district. Murphy portrayed Rubio as a political climber – only looking to serve in the U.S. Senate until he could make another run for president.
Money, however, helped both candidates define the other, with Rubio holding a clear advantage.
Murphy loaned himself $1 million last month; and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid’s Senate Majority PAC steered some late money into the campaign, but nothing near the $6 million once promised the two-term Jupiter Democrat.
“Patrick would have been a great senator and would have supported the issues we care about, like clean water,” said Murphy supporter Kenan Siegel. “The Democratic Party reneged on a $15 million spend on Patrick.”
By contrast, the Rubio campaign was powered by $36.8 million, two-thirds of it from such groups as the Senate Leadership Fund and National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell persuaded Rubio to run for re-election in June, promising a boatload of campaign money if he abandoned plans to step away from the Senate after a grueling, unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination.
McConnell delivered. Murphy, by contrast, spent $22.5 million – but was outgunned on television by Rubio in the campaign’s homestretch.
Murphy also failed to overtake Rubio in polls, ever since the West Miami Republican entered the race.
Murphy entered the U.S. Senate race in March 2015, with Rubio already en route to his presidential campaign, which later included a promise not to seek re-election.
Murphy, whose wealthy father owns a Miami construction company, was a potentially powerful Democratic contender, especially against a field of mostly little-known Republicans who lined up to succeed Rubio.
Rubio’s re-entry into the race changed the dynamic, and Murphy was fighting an uphill battle ever since.
Murphy, though, had problems of his own making.
Last summer, Murphy had to walk back an exaggerated claim about his academic background – having boasted of holding two degrees from the University of Miami, when he had one. While touting his credentials as a certified public accountant, he’s not licensed in Florida and didn’t work long as a CPA.
He also inflated his record as a “small business owner,” instead running a company involved in coastal cleanup following the BP oil disaster that appeared mostly controlled by his father.
As late as last week, Murphy was forced to answer questions about news reports that the FBI was investigating a friend and former high school classmate for a potential campaign finance scheme involving the Democrat’s first run for Congress.
Rubio, though, had his own issues to overcome.
With the worst attendance record in the U.S. Senate last year, Rubio had to defend his reasons for seeking re-election in a state where in the March presidential primary, he carried only one county in losing to eventual Republican nominee Donald Trump.
He also had to thread a tight political needle with Trump.
Rubio endorsed the presidential contender. But he steered clear of Trump – never appearing at one of nominee’s frequent Florida rallies – while also attempting to create some separation from Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants, women and more.
In two statewide television debates, Murphy tried to lash Rubio to Trump, accusing him of not having the “backbone” to stand up to a candidate he condemned as a “con artist” during the presidential primaries.
Murphy also repeatedly hit Rubio over his widely expected plans to seek the Republican presidential nomination again in 2020 – a move that would likely turn him into an absentee senator, again.
Rubio in his final debate with Murphy promised to serve a full six-year term in the U.S. Senate, “God willing,” which was viewed as a nuanced response intended to give him a possible exit strategy.
It also didn’t blunt speculation about Rubio’s ambitions. Only a couple weeks earlier, he also took a stab at assuring a debate audience, under prodding from Murphy.
“I’m going to be a senator for the next six years on behalf of the state of Florida,” Rubio said. “You can’t be senator and president at the same time.”