As Florida's Dumb Politics Go, So Go the Nation's - Rolling Stone
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As Florida’s Dumb Politics Go, So Go the Nation’s

This year’s Florida Senate primary has been a depressing small-scale version of the national general election

Jeb Lund, Florida Senate Primary, Alan Grayson, Marco Rubio, Patrick Murphy, 2016 Politics, Voting, Elections 2016Jeb Lund, Florida Senate Primary, Alan Grayson, Marco Rubio, Patrick Murphy, 2016 Politics, Voting, Elections 2016

Florida Rep. Alan Grayson, who is currently running for Senate.

Bill Clark//Getty

It’s a refrain locals think of more than you’d imagine: Oh, Florida, we expected so much more from you.

This could have been the year of the bonkers primary in the state: a genuine battle for the Democrats’ future versus a mangy pack of hyenas driven insane from a piercing dog-whistle, all scrambling to replace a suddenly departed incumbent. Instead, it turned into a depressing small-scale version of the national general election.

The Florida primary officially began in April 2015, when Marco Rubio again raised the bar for the dumbest statement of his career, announcing that he was skipping his Senate reelection bid to focus on running for president of the United States. He could have run for both, and no one would have faulted him.

After losing the presidential primary, he would have had to hustle a bit to retain his Senate seat, elevating his personal work rate somewhere above its customary “fat housebound Labrador” level, but it would have been smooth sailing after that. He could have done a full Weekend at Bernie’s for anywhere between a generation and a lifetime in the Senate, just another placidly smiling, mostly dead charlatan in the Florida sun. Instead, he opened a whole different can of worms.

Rubio’s departure opened the door for a serious Democratic primary – rather than voters and donors trudging toward whatever affluent, centrist doll Rubio and the GOP would beat the stuffing out of in November. Presidential election years favor Democratic turnout, and Florida’s registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by about a quarter million. Combined with distaste for the GOP presidential primary, exhaustion with GOP obstructionism in Congress and anger at GOP foot-dragging on Florida issues like climate change (and, later, Zika), there was an opportunity there.

One person who saw it was Alan Grayson, a House Democrat, who grew nationally famous for a speech on the House floor during the Obamacare debate in which he rightly characterized the Republican health care plan as, “Don’t get sick. If you do get sick, die quickly.”

An outspoken progressive voice, Grayson repeatedly emphasized the domestic cost of foreign intervention and called for investigating Wall Street fraud. And, despite his firebrand reputation, he worked across the aisle to pass an astonishing number of amendments. If you were a follower of the Sanders campaign, this probably sounds familiar.

The problem with Grayson’s big mouth is that he kept shoving his foot in it. Despite the “die quickly” speech netting him gobs of out-of-state donations, it drew the same for his opponent, costing him his seat in the 8th district in 2010 and forcing him to run for the re-drawn 9th district in 2012. He also called a female former Enron lobbyist a “K-street whore.”

Grayson torpedoed this campaign by confronting a Politico reporter at a Politico event and saying he hoped Capitol police would arrest him, after the reporter asked Grayson about his ex-wife’s allegations of domestic abuse. (The entire sordid story defies easy summary and at points undermines both parties.) Images of the tall, booming Grayson getting in someone’s face in the aftermath of the allegations was enough to send donors and endorsements running.

Grayson was further hamstrung by his management, while in office, of a pair of Cayman Islands hedge funds, which the candidate claimed was ethically permissible according to the finest hair-splitting.

Until that point, the Democratic Party’s attitude toward Grayson had been, at best, barely tolerant. After the hedge-fund story broke, they moved into official contempt, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid saying, “I want you to lose.”

But if Grayson was a media darling, that didn’t translate well to Florida. His star moments were always national ones. Meanwhile, he wasn’t helped by an ad run constantly on 24-hour news in the state, featuring testimonials from progressive figures and a clip of Chris Hayes praising Grayson and shaking his hand at the end of a guest appearance on Hayes’ MSNBC show. The ad looked like it was shot on VHS, and sounded like it was mixed inside a fishbowl while someone tried and failed to evenly set a coffee mug down on a glass-top table in the background. The entire vibe made you want to join a mesothelioma class-action lawsuit with Binder & Binder after getting a payday loan.

The man currently routing Grayson to the point that his campaign pulled its TV ads for the rest of the primary is Rep. Patrick Murphy, a man as distinctive as oatmeal. Murphy is the latest avatar of the Florida Democratic Party’s strategy for winning elections: outside of abortion, Obamacare, the Everglades and offshore drilling, people apparently really want the chance to vote for Republican Unleaded over Republicans. Look how well it worked for Charlie Crist.

The analogy isn’t just leftist purity testing. Murphy was a Republican as late as 2011, one year before he unseated Allen West in the most expensive House race in history. In 2008, he made the max donation to Mitt Romney, then attributed his change of heart to the rhetoric of the Tea Party, which evidently crossed the intolerability rubicon by saying all the things Republicans already believed in, campaigned on and dog-whistled about – only louder.

Being to the left of Allen West isn’t hard. On the political spectrum, Richard Nixon stands about 1,000 feet to his left, and is comparatively close enough to Bernie Sanders that the two old grumps could look at West’s Iraqi-torturing, Nazi-analogizing ass and make a jerkoff motion in solidarity. But being “left enough” in South Florida isn’t that hard; it’s the place that makes Debbie Wasserman Schultzes.

Still, Murphy makes the job look difficult. Supposedly after entering Congress, he held a private meeting with John Boehner about switching to the Republican Party, only to be rebuffed because the party felt it could easily retake his seat in 2014. In his first term, he voted to establish the House Benghazi Committee, which has gone on to waste millions in taxpayer dollars while failing to find anything other than new ways to cynically depress Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers. As a representative from a state that is very easy to submerge, he voted for the Keystone Pipeline, which would bring literally dozens of permanent jobs to America. Murphy also co-sponsored a Republican attack on Obamacare, a “keep your plan” bill, which would have shredded the ACA’s minimum-coverage provisions.

You can’t bust Murphy too hard on the ACA; he’s not a lawyer. He entered Congress at the ripe age of 29, after a career as a CPA and later as a small-business owner, during which he entrepreneurially spent six months on the Gulf Coast cleanup. Only, he wasn’t a full-fledged CPA when he claimed he was, his small business was an “affiliate” of his father’s, and the six months of Gulf Coast-cleansing entrepreneurship only amounted to a little over two after he purchased a company that actually won the contracts to clean up the Gulf. Politifact Florida’s report on Murphy’s lengthy some-of-a-decade stint in the private sector amounts to 1,500 words noting that some of all his claims are eventually partially true.

That said, Murphy is really good at raising money. Granted, a lot of it comes from his Republican father – $500,000 a pop for 2012 and this race – but he gets a lot from Wall Street, developers, financial services companies and pharmaceutical groups too. He supports reversing Citizens United.

Murphy supports some welcome and concrete Democratic policies. He favors a $15-an-hour minimum wage, LGBT equality (including adoption, which is not popular with a lot of voters in-state), voting rights, women’s reproductive rights and the DREAM Act. But much of the rest is a grab bag of familiar and eminently shruggable Democratic campaign noises.

He supports unions, whatever that means to the party anymore. He is in favor of the U.S. having the strongest military in the world and stopping ISIS, but we must “empower countries in the Middle East to take responsibility for the fight in their own backyard” – ahahaha OK. We also have to stand by Israel, but work toward a two-state solution. No contradictions there. Energy independence? Sure, whatever. We have to cut red tape to grow the middle class. Of course! Veterans are good.

Whatever contest might have remained between Murphy and Grayson was finished the moment Barack Obama, Joe Biden and the whole of the Democratic Party establishment flung their full weight behind Murphy.

He will go on to face Marco Rubio, who scattered the Republican field or reduced them to irrelevancy the moment he reneged on his intention to become “a private citizen,” a statement that was bullshit the instant it left his mouth.

It should be a fascinating contest. Rubio fancied himself the avatar of a “new American century” of conservatism and had his future torn apart so badly that he carried only one county in his own state. He thought being young, attractive, optimistic and Hispanic would do half the work for him and was astonished to discover that he became a naive robot in a hellscape where he was the frightening Other, beckoning more danger just like him across the border.

Marco Rubio has Jeb Bush to thank for sparing him the distinction of being the most roundly rejected Florida Republican. The chances that he understands the centrifugal forces threatening to rip his party apart are extraordinarily slim.

Marco Rubio, Florida Senate Primary, Elections 2016

Instead, Rubio is running for a job he voluntarily relinquished, pledged not to seek again, then sought anyway. He has repeatedly had to deny that he said he “hated” being in Congress, although he expressed his frustration with the job so many times that it’s understandable some people might miss the distinction.

Rubio spent his entire presidential campaign disavowing his only senatorial accomplishment: an immigration-reform bill that he abandoned like a beater car in a parking garage the moment his Tea Party supporters started to sound like they might vote for someone else for president. Whoops.

It’s also a job where he had the worst voting record out of all of his peers, and once claimed that he was running for president so he could make the process of voting in the Senate meaningful again – which casts an unfortunate shade on what voting there means now. Despite his frequent D.C. absenteeism, he wasn’t working in Florida either. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told Bloomberg, “I am the mayor of the third-largest city in this state. I have never met Marco Rubio. He has never taken the time, either in Washington, D.C. or in Tampa.”

And although the pressures Donald Trump puts on down-ballot candidates are forcing Republican donors and activists to rally round candidates, it’s unclear if Rubio will get to enjoy a Republican full-court press. The Bush family has a long memory and draws a lot of water; there still could be penalties for jumping the line in front of the late lamentable Jeb Bush and cutting him on the debate stage. Bush partisans may feel like making as little effort campaigning as Rubio did, not to mention Florida swells who already blew time and money on one loser Rubio campaign.

All things are possible through Trump, however. Overshadowing the forthcoming Murphy-Rubio conflict are the two national candidates. A recent Mason-Dixon poll of likely Florida voters shows the unfavorability ratings for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are 45 and 52 percent, respectively.

It’s tempting to say that Trump can ruin Rubio’s chances. Beyond his reversals on running, the funniest part of Rubio’s candidacy is watching him keep his distance from the candidate he endorsed after insulting his dick size and calling him a dangerous “con man.” There are fewer queasy flip-flops on a Waffle House griddle.

Despite that, it’s difficult to see how a Florida resident will get a different political perspective by looking from the state to the nation, or vice-versa. Neither informs or shades the other in a novel way. They’re the same issues at different scales. Sludge rolls downhill, sure, but sometimes it just finds its level and spreads out.

Both the state and the nation saw one party battling for its soul and future and watching the Wall Street centrist win. While the Clinton campaign structured the national convention like one long frogmarch toward the center, the process went faster in Florida, aided by one candidate’s self-sabotage and the full weight of the national party compressing events. Time to celebrate a few liberal “values” benchmarks, thank your local oligarch and wait for the death via gridlock or indifference of all those social and economic justice aspirations – whose sincerity you weren’t sure of anyway – as slow and sure as the rising Miami tide.

And then there’s Rubio, the same old fraud on any stage. Who’s ready to say he’s ready to work tirelessly for your vote, and readier still to do the very minimum. Who cannot stand Washington but needs to go back there immediately. Who knows government is broken and will break it back together again. Who does not trust but supports the presidential candidate you should vote for, because his rhetoric about immigrants and Islam is not the good kind of too extreme, but is not incorrect. Who always meant it when he didn’t say that he didn’t want to not be here – or not. Who you can trust this time, unlike the other guys. Who does not realize how much he is hated even by elements of his own party.

The Florida primary was over a long time ago, and we already picked our dummies, untenably taped and propped up by disparate groups, each anticipating its own sets of disappointments, each unified more by the dread of the other. It is time to see which one falls apart.


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