Add departing U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, to the list of politicians who underestimated Donald Trump.
Murphy knew it would be tough to topple Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, but he expected a Hillary Clinton victory in Florida to boost his chances in the nationally watched Senate race. Seeing Trump as a liability for GOP candidates, Murphy took every opportunity to link Rubio to the Republican presidential nominee.
Rubio ended up winning re-election with 52 percent of the vote to Murphy’s 44.3 percent. And Trump carried Florida and its 29 electoral votes, defeating Clinton by 1.2 percent on his way to a stunning national upset.
“There was certainly an undercurrent that I didn’t see,” Murphy said this week in an interview.
Murphy, 33, says he plans to “focus on the private sector” and reconnect with family and friends in the coming months. But after representing a Palm Beach-Treasure Coast congressional district for two terms, Murphy said he remains interested in returning to public service.
“I’ve made it clear to all my friends and supporters that I do have a desire to serve,” Murphy said. “I don’t know how I’ll feel in six months, maybe I’ll feel different, I don’t know. But for sure I know I’m going to miss certain aspects of the job.”
In six months, the 2018 election cycle will be well under way. Murphy was asked specifically about Florida’s 2018 governor’s race, which has already drawn interest from several Democrats who have never run statewide.
“I’m certainly not going to rule anything out,” Murphy said. “I want to keep all options on the table and I want to just see how I’m feeling, see how the political environment is, see the issues people are talking about.”
Murphy’s fortunes in the Senate race were always linked to Clinton. He appeared at Clinton rallies in the final weeks of the campaign, including a Miami Gardens event in which President Barack Obama spent nearly as much time talking about the Murphy-Rubio race as the presidential contest. In two televised debates with Rubio, Murphy repeatedly injected Trump into the discussion.
“Basically the answer to every question tonight by Congressman Murphy is ‘Donald Trump’ … a noun, a verb and ‘Donald Trump’ – that’s his answer to everything,” Rubio said during an Oct. 26 debate at Broward College in Davie.
As election day approached, Murphy said he was optimistic about his race and confident Clinton would win the presidency.
But, in hindsight, Murphy said that as he campaigned around the state he saw clear signs of “passion” for Trump.
“I just thought it was a couple of people around the state of Florida. I didn’t think it was as big of a wave as it turned out to be,” Murphy said.
For instance, Murphy said, “You’re driving to Pensacola. It’s still anecdotal, but you go to a store and you look at bumper stickers, you look at signs, you talk to someone that’s checking you out. ‘Who are you voting for?’ ‘Oh, Trump.’ Just your everyday person you’re talking to, there was an enthusiasm, no doubt.”
But that was anecdotal evidence. The polls said otherwise.
“All the polls were showing (the Senate race) was going to be close and, hey, if Hillary wins Florida by a couple points, we got it. We are right there. The last-month trend was in our favor. The exit polls from early votes, the enthusiasm, the stories we kept reading, the Hispanic vote up 100 percent from 2012 — we couldn’t have dreamt of anything better than that three months out from election day. So we were feeling really good,” Murphy said.
On election night, Murphy’s optimism was quickly extinguished as early returns made it clear Rubio would win. Before 9 p.m., Murphy had called Rubio concede. At the Palm Beach Gardens Marriott, Murphy began his concession speech with what he assumed would be a silver lining for Democrats.
“We are on a pathway to making history tonight. We are about to elect Hillary Clinton as president,” Murphy told his supporters in a hotel ballroom.
Focused on his own race, Murphy said he didn’t realize until he got a condolence call from Vice President Joe Biden about an hour later that Clinton might lose.
“I’m really concerned about what’s happening with Hillary,” Murphy recalled Biden saying.
Weeks later, Murphy attributes Trump’s victory to concerns about the economy.
“The number one focus has to remain jobs. There’s a lot of really, really important issues to talk about. You still have a lot of Americans that aren’t feeling the recovery enough,” Murphy said.
Later, speaking of his campaign and Clinton’s, Murphy said: “I would say, it’s the same old thing, that it’s jobs, jobs, jobs – just keep bringing it back to that. We talked about a lot of important issues, she talked a lot of important issues, but you look at some of the exit polls and the data you’re seeing and just from conversation, that’s what’s on people’s minds first and foremost. And if you get that right, then you can start talking about some of these other issues.”
Murphy said he hasn’t set a timeline for deciding on a possible return to politics. He said he’ll remain interested in the economy, innovation, student debt, climate change and other issues.
“I want to keep my voice out there,” Murphy said. “I want to keep learning about the issues. I want to keep active in these (issues), whether that means think tanks…somehow stay engaged so I can keep my finger in it. And if I get that feeling back to put my life out there again (as a candidate), then I might consider it.”
Staff writer Liz Balmaseda contributed to this story.