U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL) won his first election in 2012 by branding himself as a moderate, presenting himself as an alternative to tea party firebrand Allen West, who had been elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010.
However, Murphy is no stranger to negative campaigning. Now that he has set his sights on representing Florida in the Senate, his rhetoric has turned sharply partisan as he attempts outflank his likely primary opponent, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL), on the left and spark interest from Democrats nationally who could fund his race.
On paper, Murphy has some legitimate bipartisan credentials that have helped him win his Republican-leaning swing district. He was a registered Republican until just a few years ago and in 2007, he donated $2,300 to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Murphy switched his registration to Democrat in January 2011, right before he launched his Congressional campaign.
The Tampa Bay Times reports on several times that Murphy has crossed party lines during his first term in Congress. He’s one of 19 House Democrats to vote for the Keystone XL pipeline, supported a Republican measure to require the President to offer a budget that was balanced within ten years, and voted for a farm bill extension that would have added new work requirements for food stamp recipients.
Despite Murphy’s efforts to portray himself as bipartisan, he has consistently been an outspoken critic of the Tea Party, and is no stranger to negative campaigning. A 2011 article by the Palm Beach Post reported Murphy’s comments that he blamed the Tea Party for driving him from the Republican party. “I’ve been voting as a Democrat for many years and once I saw the extreme elements in the Tea Party, I switched my official party ticket,” Murphy told the Post.
Murphy has been a prolific fundraiser throughout his short political career. He first captured the attention of political journalists when his first campaign finance filing showed that he had raised $321,087, surpassing the $254,605 raised by former West Palm Beach mayor Lois Frankel.
The 2012 contest between Murphy and West for Florida’s 18th Congressional District captured headlines for being not only one of the most expensive of the election cycle, but also one of the nastiest. According to OpenSecrets.org, it was the most expensive Congressional race in the country, with the two candidates spending some $24 million, nearly as much as the Florida Senate race that year (which was itself the eighth most expensive Senate race).
Murphy was also supported by millions from outside PACs. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent more than a half a million dollars on his behalf, and another Democratic PAC, the House Majority PAC, dropped $2.3 million on attack ads against West.
Thomas Murphy, Jr. owns a construction company, Coastal Construction Group, in Miami and has heavily invested in his son’s political career, donating $550,000 in seed money to PACs supporting his 2012 campaign, including $250,000 to one called “American Sunrise.” In total, Murphy’s relatives and other Coastal Construction Group employees also donated almost $94,000 directly to his campaign, according to TC Palm. Murphy’s father also gave him a significant gift of company stock at the end of 2012, worth an estimated one to five million dollars.
What all these millions funded was, as noted, some of the nastiest, most negative ads of 2012. An ad by the American Sunrise Super PAC was heavily criticized for depicting West punching women and taking money; some viewed the ad as racist.
West countered with an ad that depicted Murphy’s 2003 arrest outside a Miami Beach nightclub for disorderly intoxication and possessing a fake driver’s license. The charges were eventually dropped, but the arrest affidavit and media reports are full of embarrassing details about that night. According to the Post, Murphy, then a freshman at the University of Miami, and a friend had gotten in a fight with another group of men at the club sometime after 3:00 a.m. Club security tossed them out and they were put into a cab. The cab driver quickly brought them back to the club, however, complaining that the two were drunk and would not pay the fare. Murphy was found with a fake New Jersey drivers license that said he was 21 years old — he was actually only 19 at the time — and reportedly continued to be disorderly and cursed at the police officers, who placed him under arrest.
After the brutal campaign, Murphy would eke out a victory by a mere 2,429 votes out of 331,169 cast, a margin of 0.8 percent. It took several days for the state of Florida to certify the vote, and there were allegations of irregularities in the counting. West challenged the results but eventually conceded the race on November 20, 2012.
Murphy easily won reelection in 2014 against a much lesser known challenger, Republican investment manager and former state representative Carl Domino, winning 59.8 percent of the vote to Domino’s 40.2 percent. It was once again an expensive race, with the $5.3 million Murphy spent the most out of all the reelection campaigns for House Democrats.
Murphy’s victory in what was a Republican wave year sparked the chatter about him jumping into the 2016 Senate race, but this was also due to what Post political writer George Bennett noted was the “Florida Democratic Party’s dearth of statewide political talent.” Democratic pollster Tom Jensen described the idea of sophomore Congressman Murphy running for Senate as “kind of absurd,” but added that “it’s just a function of how few options there are for Democrats in Florida in 2016.”
The challenge for Florida Democrats is finding a candidate who can win the 2016 Senate race after years of Republican domination of statewide elections. During the tenure of three consecutive Republican Governors, only two Democrats have been elected statewide: Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who obviously cannot run for the state’s other Senate seat, currently held by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Alex Sink (D-FL), who was CFO. After losing back-to-back elections — the 2010 gubernatorial election to Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) and then a 2012 Congressional race to David Jolly (R-FL) — and the passing of her husband, Bill McBride, an attorney and former gubernatorial candidate himself, Sink’s claims she is done with politics are believable.
The Democrats’ bench may not be very deep, but the jump to a statewide race is still a steep challenge for a political newcomer like Murphy, and his expected primary challenger, Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) is a nationally known hero to liberals for his outspoken antics and harsh rhetoric attacking Republicans. Grayson is also no slouch when it comes to fundraising and has substantial personal assets, even as he is entangled in a nasty divorce.
Murphy’s strategy since launching his campaign last month seems to be to attempt to resurrect West as a straw man. At a recent Palm Beach County Democratic Party meeting, Murphy criticized “hyper-partisanship” but then threw out his own partisan attacks on Senate Republicans, according to a report by the Post.
“The Senate is full of Allen Wests, including Marco Rubio,” said Murphy. “Let’s take back the Senate. Let’s make sure we send Ted Cruz back to the minority. Let’s send Marco Rubio home. Let’s make sure Hillary Clinton is the next president of the United States of America.”
Rubio, as Breitbart News reported, will not be running for reelection to the Senate, but instead will kickoff his presidential campaign on April 13 in Miami. CFO Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Lieutenant Governor Carlos López-Cantera are among the list of Republicans rumored to be looking at running for the seat. Atwater is planning to launch his campaign a few days after Rubio’s announcement; López-Cantera and Bondi’s plans are not known at this time.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.