A messy fight between traditional Democrats and the party’s emboldened progressive wing in Florida could cost Democrats their best shot at taking Marco Rubio’s senate seat. Representative Alan Grayson, who first gained fame saying the Republican health care plan is “Don’t get sick, and if you do get sick, die quick,” is giving Democrats heartburn with his decision to enter the 2016 Senate race.
Grayson has a national following for the way he sticks it to both Republicans and his fellow Democrats. But beyond those drinking the Kool-Aid, Democrats don’t want him as their standard-bearer in a hotly contested race that’s key to winning the Senate majority.
“He’s a love-him-or-hate-him guy, and he doesn’t get much love outside the Netroots progressive core,” says Brad Coker of Mason Dixon Polling and Research. “The money people in Florida wouldn’t support him.”
Efforts to dissuade Grayson from running only seem to egg him on, and to energize his voters. A Mason Dixon poll released Monday showed a tight race, with Grayson at 33 percent, and Representative Patrick Murphy, who has been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, at 32 percent, with 35 percent undecided.
“Grayson is the Republican’s dream opponent,” says Coker. “Murphy would have a fighting chance.”
Where Grayson is a liberal firebrand with a penchant for making inflammatory statements, Murphy is a CPA with an accountant’s cautious demeanor. He was a Republican until 2011, and says he left the GOP to protest the Tea Party takeover. Grayson’s campaign calls Murphy a “fake Democrat” and a Wall Street clone, but those Republican credentials, and a check he wrote to Mitt Romney in 2007, wouldn’t hurt him in the general election.
There’s nothing right now that would get the stubborn Grayson out of the race. But Democrats are getting ready to pile on, and they’ve got plenty to work with. Grayson manages at least two hedge funds incorporated in the Cayman Islands, a well-known tax haven, and he has not been fully transparent about those activities, the income he derives and possible conflicts of interest, prompting two ethics complaints to the House Ethics Committee.
One is from The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, a nonpartisan watchdog group; the other is from the St. Lucie County Democratic chairwoman, Celeste Bush, who charges that Grayson has not properly disclosed the source and amount of his outside income on financial disclosure forms. Grayson is among the wealthiest members of Congress, with a net worth of over $30 million.
His private life is also a target of opportunity for Democrats wanting to torpedo his candidacy. After much acrimony, his marriage was annulled in 2014 after 25 years and five children on the grounds of bigamy—that his now ex-wife had not been legally free to marry him. When news reports last year found his family had qualified for food stamps, and his children were receiving free school lunches, Grayson blamed his ex, telling a local TV station, “I’ll sum it up for you: Gold diggers gotta dig.”
As the heat gets turned up on Grayson, will the voters rally to his side, or will they see the light?
“If he can behave himself, he’ll be able to stay [in the race],” says Brad Coker, the pollster. “He’s sort of like Trump: You’re waiting for him to implode.”
Grayson may not be able to win a Senate seat, or even win the primary, but his candidacy comes with a cost. Democrats pitted against Democrats in Florida echoes what’s happening nationally among Republicans as they try to squelch Donald Trump without alienating his rabid supporters, who enjoy giving the middle finger to the political establishment.
“Make no mistake, Alan Grayson will do more damage to himself and to our Democratic Party as a whole than he could ever do to Patrick Murphy,” Celeste Bush said in an email. She feels so strongly about Grayson that in April she urged party leaders to de-certify the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida for promoting his entry into the Senate race.
“Grayson is a loose cannon. He’s defending his overseas hedge funds while he calls his wife of 25 years and the mother of his five children a gold digger,” Bush said in her email. “As a mom, that’s more than offensive. This is not someone that represents our values and he won’t run a campaign we can be proud of.”
Florida attorney John Morgan, a big Hillary supporter and a self-described flaming liberal, says his politics are much closer to Grayson’s than to Murphy’s or Florida Senator Bill Nelson’s. But Morgan thinks Grayson is making a big mistake by running.
“Alan is a friend of mine, he’s a client of mine, and I tried mightily to dissuade him from walking away from a national platform that most congressmen and women do not have,” Morgan says. “He’s like Barney Frank—he was a congressman from Massachusetts and he was America’s congressman, progressive America’s congressman. I told him, ‘I hate to see a smart guy like you walk away from the Congress because I don’t see a path forward for you in Florida.’”
To understand what it takes for a Democrat to win statewide in Florida, look at Nelson’s career, says Morgan. The former astronaut, elected in 2000 and twice reelected, is broadly liberal, but must always be mindful of his right flank.
“It’s a tightrope with no room for error, it’s threading a needle with a fine piece of thread,” says Morgan. “You have to be able to do well in the Panhandle. I’m a fan of Alan’s politics but he has a lot of minuses. He told me if Charlie Crist got in the race, he would get out.”
That’s a stunner considering Crist hit the trifecta, losing races as a Republican, an independent, and as a Democrat. Why would Grayson move over for Crist and not Murphy? “Jealous is a harsh word,” Morgan said. “It’s more ‘It’s my turn, not his. How does this young kid, 32 years old, get this opportunity when I’m the smartest guy in the room?’”
Morgan used to think that come April or May of 2016, if the polls weren’t looking good, Grayson could always come back and run for his seat. But now his girlfriend, Dena Minning, a self-described biotechnology entrepreneur with no political experience, has jumped into the race for Grayson’s House seat along with Grayson’s most trusted administrative aide and at least two other entrants.
“How does he say to his girlfriend, ‘I’m coming back,’” says Morgan. “I used to think he had a way to walk this back, but he’s painted himself into a corner.” Still, voters might as well kick back and enjoy the spectacle. May the best man win is a nice sentiment, however hard it is to uphold.