Cruising to re-election on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio defeated challenger Val Demings in a statewide “red” wave as Republicans bulldozed Democrats up and down the ballot.
Demings, a congresswoman from Orlando, had been widely viewed as Democrats’ best shot at winning a statewide election this year.
But Rubio had major advantages as he sought a third term in the Senate, including his status as an incumbent, his ethnicity and his Miami-Dade County roots.
Rubio’s overwhelming victory — he led Demings by about 16 percentage points as of 10 p.m. — came as Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republicans throughout Florida crushed their opponents, capturing legislative and congressional seats and securing an all-GOP Florida Cabinet.
Addressing a packed room of supporters Tuesday evening at the Hilton Miami Airport Blue Lagoon, Rubio said Democrats were unable to connect with working- and middle-class voters.
“The people who make this country great have been forgotten and have been left behind," Rubio said.
"After tonight, the Republican Party will never be the same, and that's a great thing for America, because this is a party made up of people from every color, every race, every ethnicity, men, women — yes men and women, that exists,” Rubio said, making a reference to transgender people. “You know what we call people who are Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, men, women, come from other countries? You know what we call them in Florida? We call them Americans."
Demings, conceding the race at an election-watch party in Orlando, said that, while “the election may be over, there are dreams that are still alive.”
“So, Florida, I tell you tonight that I am not tired, I am not afraid,” she said. “I believe in you, and in our ability to change the world. And though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, together we are going to fight for our democracy and for the American dream.”
Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, was first elected to the Senate amid a Tea Party wave in 2010.
Earlier, he became the state’s first Cuban-American state House speaker at age 35, priding himself on a focus on complicated policy issues.
In his first term in Washington, Rubio’s emphasis on policy contributed to his inclusion in a bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight” who crafted a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013. The measure failed to gain traction.
But Rubio has pivoted to the right since his re-election in 2016, after he bowed out of a race for president.
During the presidential campaign, Rubio pilloried then-candidate Donald Trump as “reckless” and dangerous and warned that he would “do damage to America” if elected.
As he vied for a third term in Washington this year, however, Rubio embraced the former president. Trump held a rally for Rubio in the closing days of the campaign.
“You’re going to re-elect the wonderful, the great friend of mine Marco Rubio … to the United States Senate and you are going to re-elect Ron DeSantis as your governor,” Trump told supporters at the Miami-Dade County fairgrounds on Sunday.
Demings, who was elected to the U.S. House 2016, tried to gain traction with voters by emphasizing her 27-year law-enforcement career, pushing back against a “defund the police” label that Republicans stamped on Democrats over the past few years.
Demings, who is Black, was Orlando’s first female police chief. Most of her campaign material referred to her as “Chief Demings.”
Demings also followed a Democratic playbook used by candidates throughout the country by making abortion rights a key component of her campaign, after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
The Senate opponents clashed on the issue during their sole debate of the campaign, with Rubio painting Demings as an “extremist” on abortion rights.
“She supports no restrictions, no limitations of any kind,” he said during the Oct. 18 debate. “She supports taxpayer-funded abortion … up until the moment of birth.”
In an appearance on the television show “The View” on Election Day, Demings accused Rubio of changing “with the wind” on the abortion issue.
Rubio “has consistently said that he really supports no abortions … even in cases of incest and rape,” Demings said, adding that she supports abortion rights “until fetal viability.
“The decision should be made between the woman, her family, her doctor and her faith. I believe that a woman should have access. And that is the bottom line, and we’re going to fight for a woman to have the right to choose,” she said.
But Demings, 65, couldn’t overcome a plethora of issues to defeat Rubio, whose political clout could be ascending if Republicans take control of the Senate.
Rubio hails from Miami-Dade County, which is part of the broader South Florida region where Democrats always need to win by large margins to offset Republican dominance in other areas. And he’s Hispanic, another voting bloc deemed critical for Democrats to win statewide.
But perhaps an even bigger obstacle for Demings was that she’s a member of the party in power in a midterm election, when “the sitting president usually gets the credit or the blame, whether it’s their fault or not,” Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner told The News Service of Florida recently.
Before 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Florida Democratic Party Chairman Manny Diaz acknowledged in a statement that Demings and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist had lost.
Demings “out-campaigned Marco Rubio every day of this race,” Diaz said.
“As the daughter of a maid and a janitor who rose to lead the Orlando police department and represent her community in Congress, Chief Demings has never shied away from a tough fight. She has spent her entire career working to make Florida a better place and we're counting on her to keep fighting,” Diaz said.