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Rep. Stephanie Murphy Considers Senate Run Against Rubio

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate.
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate.

Democrats have struggled in Florida.

Right now they hold just one statewide office — the agriculture commissioner — despite years of running candidates who come within narrow margins of a win.

Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy from central Florida thinks she could be the one to change that trend in a potential run against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

"I am thinking very seriously about whether or not to run," Murphy said in an interview with NPR. "Florida deserves at least one senator who isn't focused on becoming president."

Murphy has spent the past four years rising in the ranks of House Democrats and building a reputation as a moderate pragmatist with a history of working across the aisle. That should make her a natural leader in the House at a moment when "bipartisan" is the biggest buzzword in Washington.

Florida's political scene is in flux: The state's Republican legislature is set to redraw congressional lines this year, putting Murphy's current district at risk of a dramatic shift to the right. That would put her political future in the House at risk.

Murphy says she can replicate the success she has seen in her central Florida district, in part because her constituents look a lot like the rest of the state.

"I think about the way that I have served in the House as one of the most effective and bipartisan members," she said. "I think about how I've been able to run in a difficult district that is a microcosm of the broader Florida dynamics of about a third D, a third R, a third independent, and win handily in these elections."

Murphy hasn't officially announced her plans, but she's already facing a potential primary challenge from Rep. Val Demings, who has seen support from national Democrats.

A national Democrat with knowledge of the party's strategy on Senate races told NPR's Claudia Grisales that Demings "is strongly considering a Senate run." The official called Demings a "formidable candidate," indicating national support even as Murphy considers her plan.

Florida political consultant Fernand Amandi says Murphy, like most Democrats, faces other uphill battles within the state.

"Democrats have failed spectacularly here in Florida over the last 20 years," Amandi said. "But the fact is, every single one of those races, for the most part, has been close, decided by less than 3 or 4 percentage points, and in most cases, even less than that. So the numbers continue to paint a tantalizing picture for Florida where it is competitive."

Amandi says Florida Democrats are just less organized than Republicans. He says they need to win in the statewide races in 2022 to hobble GOP chances during the next presidential election.

"I think a lot of folks at the national level also see Florida as the front line for Trumpism," he said, "and potentially the gateway toward the nomination for president in 2024."

Murphy would bring a strong history of fundraising and a unique profile to a statewide campaign. She was elected in 2016, when Donald Trump won the state, and she won again in 2020, outperforming many other Democrats on the ticket.

She attributes her success, in part, to a down-to-earth background that connects with voters personally and politically. She has experience in business and national security and is a fiscal moderate in a party that has shifted further left.

Some of her moderate beliefs stem from her family's experience as refugees from communist Vietnam.

"I understand that I am fortunate to live in a country where we have a democratic governance system and a capitalist, free market economic system," Murphy said. "We as Americans have the responsibility to make our systems more equitable, make sure that everybody has opportunities to vote and opportunities to get ahead in our economy."

That's part of why she was able to avoid being branded a socialist in a state that is home to many voters who left communist countries like Cuba — even as Republicans claimed that all Democrats were left-wing ideologues.

"I think a lot of Democrats try to say, 'Oh well, it's apples to oranges,' " Murphy said. "But in the eyes of my constituents, it's all bad fruit when you're talking about socialism."

Murphy is a consistent centrist. She chairs the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally moderate Democrats who often work with Republicans on legislation. But that history of bipartisanship has become harder to maintain following the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

"People lost their lives that day," she said. "That's really hard to get over and forget, especially as we now have colleagues who are trying to tell a different story."

During the riot, Murphy was in a room where she could hear police officers being crushed by rioters and doused in bear spray. She says it is challenging to work with Republicans who deny those events. Now she says she has a pragmatic approach to finding common ground.

She says the coronavirus pandemic sharpened the focus for Democrats on getting aid to people in the country and following through on promises — even if that means Democrats have to work alone to pass priorities, like elements of President Biden's American Jobs Plan.

"My hope is that my Republican colleagues will be able to put their politics aside and their desire to 'own the libs' and do what's best for their communities and make investments in roads and bridges," she said, adding: "Pragmatic does not necessarily mean bipartisan."

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.