• Politics

In Florida Senate Race, GOP Messaging on Crime Runs Up Against an Ex-Cop Opponent

10 minute read

On Oct. 2, days after Hurricane Ian swept through Florida, Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat vying to unseat Sen. Marco Rubio, took to Twitter. “In the United States Senate, I’ll never put partisan politics over delivering disaster relief for Floridians,” she wrote. It was a veiled broadside against Rubio who, in 2012, voted against a $50 billion relief bill for New York and New Jersey after they were decimated by Hurricane Sandy, and last month skipped a vote on $18.8 billion in additional funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “He votes against things that are good for Florida,” Demings recently told TIME. “I just think Florida knows that they deserve better.”

Demings willingness to use Hurricane Ian, which has killed more than 100 people, as a tacit line of attack reflects the tricky political challenge she faces three weeks before the election. On the one hand, Demings has made the race more competitive than many political forecasters had anticipated, outraising Rubio by $8 million during the last fundraising period. Rubio, in turn, has taken to Fox News on more than one occasion begging viewers to help him catch up. “You don’t usually see a challenger to a well-known incumbent Senator outraise them in donations,” says Michael McDonald, a University of Florida politics professor. It’s also an indicator of how far she still has to go: FiveThirtyEight’s current aggregation of polls shows Rubio with an edge of 4.6 percentage points, closer than expected for a state that has trended red, but still far enough to require a significant turn in political fortunes for a Demings victory.

On Tuesday, Demings and Rubio will participate in their only scheduled debate. The state’s recovery from Hurricane Ian is sure to be a major subject. So, too, is crime, an issue animating congressional races across the country, and one that’s taken on sharper prominence in the Florida Senate race, where Rubio has taken Demings’ past statements out of context to suggest she wants to defund the police. That may seem like standard GOP fare in 2022. But Demings’ last job before coming to Congress was as Orlando’s first female chief of police, a department she served in for 27 years. According to the city’s current Sheriff, John Mina, Demings oversaw a 40% reduction in violent crime during her tenure. “To say that I want to defund the police is just crazy, and it’s just disgraceful,” Demings says. “Quite frankly, Marco Rubio should be ashamed of himself.” Rubio declined to comment for this report.

More from TIME

There’s more at stake than the political futures of two seasoned Florida politicians. Whether Rubio retains his seat could determine which party controls the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris’s ability to cast tie-breaking votes gives a slim advantage to Democrats, who are defending 14 seats compared to Republicans’ 21.

A surprise Demings win would also have substantial implications for contemporary politics. It would likely be read as an indicator of just how much the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning a constitutional right to abortion has endangered Republican politicians. And it might even implicate presidential politics, suggesting a Democratic candidate for the White House can still win the state’s crucial 29 electoral college votes, something that hasn’t happened since Barack Obama’s reelection bid in 2012.

That Demings is even in the running is something of an accomplishment in Florida. Donald Trump won the last two presidential elections there and the state’s demographics now favor the GOP. In 2008, there were 650,000 more Democrats than Republicans in the Sunshine State. As of August, there were 270,000 more Republicans than Democrats. The development may be due, in part, to the influx of conservative voters who have moved to Florida since the pandemic, as the state had far more lax Covid restrictions than the rest of the country. “That’s brutal for the Democrat party going into an election,” says Christian Ziegler, the vice chair of the Florida GOP.

Read more: How Democrats Gave Ron DeSantis a Pass

Rubio, 51, is a known quantity in Florida politics. After eight years in the state legislature, rising to speaker of the house, he joined the U.S. Senate in 2012 as a Republican rising star, hailed as the Tea Party’s answer to Barack Obama. But his 2016 bid for President ended messily, losing the GOP nomination to Trump, who Rubio eventually supported despite calling him a “con man.”

Demings’ profile rose considerably in 2020, when she landed a spot on the short list to be Joe Biden’s running mate. And she’s made her biography the heart of her Senate campaign, particularly her time in law enforcement, which she’s packaged as a manifestation of her own tenacity and grit. “I can remember growing up poor, Black, and female in a rural part of Duval County in Jacksonville,” she says. “I’ve been told I wasn’t the right gender, right color. My family didn’t have a lot of money.”

The test of her campaign might be whether she can take Rubio’s principle attack against her—bashing her on public safety, a top concern for voters—and turn it into a strength.

“People have stereotypes that female candidates are soft on issues like crime,” says Sharon Austin, a political science professor at the University of Florida, “but it’s hard to paint her as a far-left liberal who’s going to come in with all of these ideas about defunding the police because of her law-enforcement background.”

Demings came of age in the Civil Rights era and went to segregated schools, where she first became interested in law enforcement in middle school after serving in the “school patrol”—helping students cross the street before and after school. She later joined a patrol unit with the Orlando Police Department after graduating from Florida State with a degree in criminology. She rose through the ranks to become police chief in 2007 and had success in driving down the crime rate, but not without some controversy, including allegations of excessive force on her watch. “We were able to reduce violent crime by over 40%, which is the most dramatic reduction in the history of the city,” she says. “I had to do that by making some decisions that weren’t the most popular decisions, but I wasn’t running a popularity contest.”

Demings’ law enforcement career came to an end in 2011, when she was recruited by Democrats to run against Republican Rep. Daniel Webster. She lost but ran again in 2016 after redistricting made the 10th district more blue. This time, she won. On Capitol Hill, she was quickly seen as up-and-comer, with Biden giving her a hard look for the VP slot two years ago.

Despite liberal calls for defunding police departments after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, most Americans, including Black adults, want increased police funding, according to polling from the Pew Research Center and elsewhere. “When I talk to the most crime-ridden communities, they want to see more police because they believe if police budgets are cut, then they would be less safe,” she says.

In that vein, Demings has emphasized her background as evidence of her public safety bona fides—both that she supports the police and has intimate knowledge of the ways in which departments should change. In our interview, she talked about the need to ban chokeholds and any restraints above the shoulders, limiting the use of no-knock warrants, and imposing higher standards within use-of-force training nationwide. “We have to do everything that we can to prevent tragedies from occurring,” she says. “I do believe that the federal government could step in and develop some standards that will help all police departments.”

Demings will almost certainly talk about those ideas in Tuesday’s debate, and not allow any Rubio attacks on her public safety record go unchallenged.

“Marco Rubio doesn’t know a dang on’ thing about that,” she says. “When he was all up in his bed sleeping, I was putting on my ballistic vest and my uniform and leaving my sons at home and tucking them in bed and going to work to keep our community safe.”

While both candidates have made crime a featured part of their campaigns, like most races across the country, abortion has emerged as a pivotal issue, and it’s not yet clear whether polling is fully capturing how much that may motivate voters in November. In Florida, the issue is made all the more pressing because Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last spring a 15-week ban on the procedure.

“I am in favor of laws that protect human life,” Rubio said in August. “I do not believe that the dignity and the worth of human life is tied to the circumstances of their conception, but I recognize that’s not a majority position.” Indeed, Rubio’s position is widely unpopular in Florida. A recent survey found that 67% of the state’s residents support abortion rights in all or most cases.

Demings has vowed, if elected, to vote to change the Senate’s filibuster rules so that Democrats can pass a national abortion bill codifying the protections in Roe with a simple majority of the chamber. She has also brought the issue back to her law enforcement background, mocking Rubio for not supporting exceptions to abortion in cases of rape or incest.

“I know something about fighting crime, Senator Rubio,” Demings says in a recent ad. “Rape is a crime. Incest is a crime. Abortion is not.”

The other main battle line will be over the messages candidates are targeting to Hispanic voters. Roughly 55% of Florida’s Cuban-Americans went with Trump in 2020. The former President also made large gains in Miami-Dade County, going from 333,999 votes in 2016 to 529,016.

In one ad Rubio released last month, he accuses Demings of supporting a “radical left” agenda, including “trying to turn boys into girls.” “I was raised by people who lost their country,” Rubio says. “I’m not going to let us lose ours.”

That language could have a real resonance with key constituencies that could tip the race, according to Florida political analysts.

“There’s this real effort in pushing South Florida to label Democrats as communists and socialists,” McDonald said. “It’s playing to a base down there that fled from authoritarian regimes. And these have strong negative connotations.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com