MIAMI — Republican Sen. Marco Rubio cruised to victory Tuesday night, securing his third term amid a statewide Democratic collapse, NBC News projects.
Rubio was vastly outspent by Democratic Rep. Val Demings, but his victory came as little surprise to political observers from both parties, who point to the tough headwinds Democrats faced, Florida’s increasingly rightward drift and the long and strong coattails of the juggernaut campaign of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Rubio is the first Florida Republican to win three terms in the Senate. With 93% of precincts reporting, he also appears to have won it handily, boasting nearly 4.4 million votes, or 58%, while Demings had slightly more than 3.1 million, or 41%.
Rubio’s victory speech focused on American identity, his family history, Christianity and the success of the GOP in Florida. This victory, he said, would return him to the Senate “more energized and excited” than he has “been at any other time.”
“I believe we’re on the cusp of a new generation of leadership in this Republican Party that will restore common sense,” he said.
The state Democratic Party overall had a fairly weak bench this cycle, which remains a problem for the party. Many had hoped its future was through Demings: a three-term congresswoman and former police chief who was seeking to become the first Black senator elected from Florida.
Demings, once considered a potential running mate for President Joe Biden in 2020, acknowledged her loss in a concession speech, telling supporters she had spoken with Rubio and congratulated him on his victory. She also made a point, however, to tell Florida Democrats not to give up.
“I ran for the Senate because we can never stop striving to form that more perfect union,” she said. “It’s not easy. It’s never been easy, but nothing ever worth it is ever easy. But I came tonight to tell you it’s worth the fight.”
As Florida’s longest-serving Hispanic statewide elected official, Rubio was also credited by fellow Republicans and Democrats alike with helping the Republican Party expand its influence among Hispanic voters — the state’s fastest-growing major demographic group, which helped turn Florida redder than ever Tuesday night.
“The renaissance of Republican Latinos began in many ways with Marco Rubio,” said Susie Wiles, a top political adviser to former President Donald Trump who managed come-from-behind victories for governor by Rick Scott in 2010 and DeSantis in 2018.
“It wasn’t just Rubio who got us into this position,” Wiles said, “What started with him was then built upon by Gov. Scott [in his successful 2018 Senate campaign] and by President Trump. But to be clear: Marco deserves a lot of credit.”
Florida’s overall Hispanic vote tends to be more conservative than other states’ because of the strong influence of Republican-leaning Cuban Americans like Rubio. But increasingly, especially in the Miami area, voters with roots in Colombia, Venezuela and Nicaragua have found common cause with those conservative Cuban Americans as Republicans did an effective job of branding Democrats as too far left, owing to the influence of prominent democratic socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y.
Rubio’s influence with Hispanic voters and the Republican Party isn’t limited to pure electoral politics — he influences U.S. Latin American policy as the vice chair of the Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, and he often acted as a top adviser to Trump, who stocked his administration with conservative hard-liners tied to Rubio.
Now, with Trump planning a comeback bid, Rubio is well-positioned to help shape Trump’s policies again if the former president runs again.
Rubio’s career and his relationship with Trump tell the story of the Republican Party in Florida. Elected to the Senate in 2010 as an insurgent tea party darling who chased then-Gov. Charlie Crist from the Republican Party before he beat him in the general election, Rubio ran against Trump for president in 2016 and warned that his rival was an unstable, hateful ignoramus.
But Rubio — damaged among Republicans for his role in the failed 2013 bipartisan immigration plan, which he later tried to back away from — was soundly beaten in 66 of the state’s 67 counties in the Florida primary by Trump, who attracted immigration hard-liners.
Rubio dropped out of the presidential race, reversed course on not running for re-election to the Senate and kept his distance from Trump on his way to a general election win of nearly 8 percentage points over Rep. Patrick Murphy. Trump carried the state by just over a point in the same election.
Trump and Rubio entered an alliance as the president leaned on the senator to help shape Cuba policy and Latin America policy more generally.
The two grew so close that on Sunday, Trump held a rally for Rubio, which DeSantis skipped as tensions between the governor and former president escalate as they eye White House bids in two years. DeSantis has also had strained relations with Sen. Rick Scott, making Rubio the only one of the four high-profile Republicans in the state with good relations on all sides.
Former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Miami Democrat who was the first South American immigrant elected to Congress in 2018, said Rubio’s shape-shifting political career was emblematic of a 51-year-old career politician who won his first political office, a West Miami City Commission seat 24 years ago, before he became a state legislator and then a U.S. senator.
“The guy has been following the extreme MAGA Trumpian playbook. He’s going wherever the wind takes him, whatever is convenient,” she said. “But the issue is that when you’re Hispanic in Florida and all you hear from Hispanics who are Republicans like Rubio and others who are on radio, TV and media speaking to them in Spanish, they connect to that.
"And that’s where we have really missed an opportunity of highlighting our strong Hispanic voices," Mucarsel-Powell said of her fellow Florida Democrats.
Mucarsel-Powell and other Democrats familiar with Demings' thinking say she is undecided about her political future but could take on Scott in two years, which would be more likely if the state Democratic Party were not in shambles and if the political climate were not so favorable to Republicans.
Demings raised $73 million to Rubio's $47 million, according to their most recent campaign finance reports, and she outspent him on TV ads.
Demings started the campaign almost defensively by playing up her law enforcement roots in a TV ad in which she bashed the progressive "defund the police" movement that has bedeviled Democratic candidates. It earned Demings social media scorn from the left, but her campaign said its internal polling showed her support increased among independents and white voters.
Demings' campaign manager, Zack Carroll, said her fortunes began to change when DeSantis unleashed his $50 million ad buy on top of Rubio's $25 million. The $30 million Demings spent just wasn't enough, he said.
“The most significant headwind we faced is a national brand that forced a strong candidate to spend tens of millions defining herself against that brand," Carroll said. "It’s a real issue we as a party have to confront to win governing majorities.”
Taking on any Republican is hard for Democrats in a state where they are hemorrhaging the support of white voters, who make up 61% of the electorate. To overcome that, Democrats need a strong turnout from Black voters (13% of the electorate) and strong support and turnout from Hispanic voters (18% of the electorate and growing).
Alex Patton, a Florida Republican political consultant, said the math is increasingly getting harder for Democrats, especially as Republicans like Rubio try to align with the ascending conservative electorate.
“He’s a survivor,” Patton said. “He has adjusted to do what he has needed to do in order to win."
Patton added: “He’s not a true believer, and the true believers don’t believe in him. It’s a marriage of convenience.”