WASHINGTON ― A year and a half from now, will Florida Republicans love Donald Trump more than Florida Democrats hate him?
The answer to that question may well determine whether Republican Sen. Marco Rubio ― who himself disparaged Trump as unfit to lead before praising him after he won the presidency ― can win a third term next year, now that a Trump impeachment prosecutor is jumping into the race against him.
Val Demings, 64, already had a background suited to win over both traditional Democratic voters as well as some unaligned and even Republican-leaning independents: an African American woman with 27 years in law enforcement, the last three as chief of the Orlando Police Department before her election to Congress. On top of that she has built a national profile thanks to her role in prosecuting Trump on the floor of the Senate in his first impeachment trial, for attempting to extort Ukraine into helping his reelection campaign.
“What makes her special, aside from being a Black woman when both are all the rage, is her impeachment role,” said Mac Stipanovich, for decades a Republican consultant in Florida who turned from the party because of Trump. “That is what gives her national chops. She grappled with the dragon in defense of democracy.”
Rubio’s campaign and other Florida Republicans said that the two-term senator is in great shape to win reelection, which will likely take place in an incumbent-friendly environment of a strong economy coming out of the pandemic.
In a statement, campaign manager Mark Morgan outlined a strategy to tie Demings to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a common tactic for Republicans ever since the San Francisco Democrat came to lead her caucus more than a dozen years ago.
“Democrats are tripping over themselves in a race to the left to find a candidate who will help advance Nancy Pelosi’s socialist agenda,” Morgan said.
One former top state party official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Rubio’s biggest edge is that Florida Republicans have been consistently better at the basics of campaigning than Democrats in recent decades. “He has definite systemic advantages. That said, it’s 18 months away. Anything can happen. This is Florida,” the official said.
The popularity of former presidents is almost never a determining factor in congressional races, but Republicans have allowed Trump ― despite his Jan. 6 attempt to overthrow American democracy to stay in power ― to remain the de facto head of their party. From his resorts in Palm Beach, Florida, and Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump holds court over the GOP, granting audiences to officeholders and candidates who want his endorsement and who typically hold five- and six-figure fundraisers at his properties that put money directly into his pocket.
Republican campaign staffers and consultants said that Trump, regardless of how Americans overall view him, is still popular in Florida, a state he won by 3 percentage points in 2020, and that if Democrats want to make the Florida Senate race in 2022 all about Trump, they are happy to accept that framework.
Democrats argue that the 2018 midterms showed that Trump’s hardest-core supporters are not as interested in supporting other Republicans when Trump himself is not on the ballot.
In 2018, Trump worked hard to make the midterm elections about himself ― and wound up helping Democrats win 41 House seats and take control of that chamber for the first time since 2011. In the Senate, Republicans picked up only two seats, after having hoped to gain as many as a half-dozen in their most favorable map in a generation.
In 2020, with Trump on the ballot, Republicans fared far better in the House but wound up losing three seats in the Senate as Trump became the first incumbent to lose reelection since 1992 and only the third since Herbert Hoover.
One consultant close to the Rubio campaign said that the 2022 election is almost certainly going to center on Rubio’s and Demings’ respective records, not on Trump, and that Rubio will be able to show a contrast that energizes Republican voters.
Democrats, though, said Demings’ star status will give her an ability to raise money nationally and make Rubio work for a victory ― something he has not had to do in over a decade.
Indeed, Rubio’s most challenging political race was his first run for the Senate in 2010. He was at the time the recently departed speaker of the Florida House ― a household name among politicians in the state, but barely known at all outside of that. Working to his advantage, though, was “The Hug” that then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist had given President Barack Obama in February 2009, during the first Black president’s visit to Florida to sell his stimulus plan. Obama was reviled by “tea party” conservatives ― many of them open racists who spread the lie that he had not been born in the United States and was secretly a Muslim ― who happily sided with Rubio over Crist in the Senate race.
By the summer of 2010, Rubio had taken a commanding lead over Crist for the GOP nomination, leading Crist to drop out of the primary and instead run as an independent. Rubio easily won the three-way race that November, with Crist splitting the Democratic vote.
Six years later, after he and 15 other Republicans failed to stop Trump from winning their party’s presidential nomination, Rubio ran for reelection, even though he had said previously he would never return to the Senate. He easily defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy by 8 percentage points, even as Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton in the state by just over 1 point.
Democratic consultant Kevin Cate, who is working for Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s expected run for governor, said Rubio has coasted for years, at least in his Florida races, but that is about to change.
“He has never had a competitive race. He has never been punched in the face,” Cate said. “Except by Trump, who trounced him. And by Chris Christie, who made him look ridiculous.”
In a key 2016 GOP presidential debate, Christie, then also a candidate for the nomination, goaded Rubio into repeating memorized talking points attacking Obama several times in the span of a few minutes, which led to a widespread belief that Rubio was not ready for the presidency. And in the Florida primary, which Rubio had expected to win, Trump won with 46% of the vote to Rubio’s 27%.
Cate, though, does agree with Republican consultants who say that Trump and his impeachments are likely to be distant memories by the time November 2022 rolls around, and probably will not play a big role in a Rubio-Demings contest.
“One rule of Florida politics is that Florida voters have a short memory,” he said. “The benefit of the impeachment trial is it showed what a competent Florida elected official looks like.”
Demings was a floor manager for Trump’s first impeachment, in early 2020, for attempting to extort the new Ukrainian president into announcing an investigation of Joe Biden, who in 2019 was the Democrat Trump most feared as a potential opponent.
Trump was impeached a record second time in January for inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol designed to help him overthrow American democracy and let him remain in power despite losing the election to Biden by 7 million votes.
Trump spent weeks attacking the legitimacy of the Nov. 3 election after he had lost, starting his lies in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 4 with claims that he had really won in a “landslide” and that it was being “stolen” from him. Those falsehoods continued through a long string of failed lawsuits challenging the results in a handful of states. After the Electoral College finally voted on Dec. 14, making Biden’s win official, Trump began urging his followers to come to Washington on Jan. 6 to intimidate his own vice president and members of Congress into overturning the election results and installing Trump as president for another term anyway. The mob he incited attempted to do just that as it stormed the Capitol. His supporters even chanted “Hang Mike Pence” after Pence refused to comply with Trump’s demands.
A police officer died after being assaulted during the insurrection, and two others took their own lives soon afterward.
Trump was impeached by the House a week later, with 10 Republicans joining every Democrat in favor.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.