Game on: Demings aims at Rubio in 2022 Senate midterms

Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP

Can Val Demings take out Marco Rubio in red-and-getting-redder Florida? The House Democrat might have a better shot at Rubio than Ron DeSantis, the incumbent Demings reportedly considered targeting, but that might not be saying much. Perhaps that’s even more the case in a midterm cycle with Joe Biden in the White House:

Florida Rep. Val Demings is planning to run for the U.S. Senate, rather than governor, providing Democrats with a big-name candidate to take on Republican Sen. Marco Rubio next year.

For months, Demings mulled which statewide office to pursue, but decided she could do the most good by taking on the two-term senator, according to several Democrats familiar with her thinking. …

Demings, 64, was first elected to the House in 2016 from Orlando and held the distinction of being the city’s first Black woman police chief. She rose to national prominence as the only non-lawyer on the first House impeachment committee to charge President Donald Trump with wrongdoing. As a Black woman and law enforcement officer, her background made her uniquely situated to be a national Democratic spokesperson for policing and race issues — it helped catapult her to President Joe Biden’s shortlist as a possible running mate in 2020.

A top adviser to Demings compared her personal biography to Rubio this way: “She’s the daughter of a maid and a janitor who became the first Black woman police chief in Orlando. He’s the son of a maid and a bartender who’s a career politician.”

Whatevs. If you’re running in your fourth election, congratulations — your career is “politician.” In fact, once you run in your first election, you’ve become a politician. The “I’m no politician” conceit from campaigners is always a bit tiresome, but especially from someone who’s spent the better part of a decade in the Beltway.

One has to wonder whether Demings might have done better to challenge Rubio in 2016, when the former-police-chief resumé might have had better cachet. Politico’s stretching to claim that her police experience “catapulted” her onto Biden’s VP shortlist; it’s more likely that it ended up as a net negative. Biden had promised to choose a black woman for his running mate, which left him with a relatively small group from which to choose, and Demings was already a prominent member of that pool. After the George Floyd protests and the Democrats’ embrace of “defund the police,” Demings would have been a millstone on the ticket — although she might have helped Biden compete better in Florida than Kamala Harris did.

Democrats’ muddled messaging on policing isn’t going to help Demings in 2022, and her background as a police chief will only make that more awkward for the national party. In Florida, her status as an impeachment manager against Donald Trump almost certainly means MAGA World will turn out heavily against her, no matter what they might otherwise think of Rubio. Trump himself will undoubtedly look to revenge himself against Demings.

One could suggest that Trump could end up stoking Democratic turnout, but he won’t be on the ballot, so any potential for backfire would be very limited. With Joe Biden facing his first midterm, the turnout model for 2022 is likely to tilt significantly in Republicans’ favor, especially in Florida as the increasingly popular DeSantis runs for re-election. Rubio has remained popular as well, but this time he’ll be riding a wave of I Told You Sos from DeSantis on COVID-19 restrictions and Florida’s booming economy. Assuming Rubio doesn’t cross swords with Trump — and he’s not been inclined to do so since 2016 — the turnout combination should make the Florida seat pretty safe for the GOP.

If Rubio’s seat had been up in 2020 or 2024, one has to wonder whether he’d be vulnerable. While Demings is probably the best recruit Democrats could get to run against Rubio, it looks all but quixotic from here.