Who’s tougher on crime in Florida’s big US Senate race?

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Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio leads Democratic challenger Val Demings in a new Mason-Dixon poll, but his support is below 50%.
Incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio leads Democratic challenger Val Demings in a new Mason-Dixon poll, but his support is below 50%.

In the opening salvos of their campaign, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Rep. Val Demings zeroed in on crime as a central issue of this year’s U.S. Senate race.

It’s not unusual that candidates try to out-tough each other on law and order. Voters are rightly worried about public safety, their fears amplified by a steady stream of news stories about muggings and murders. And this summer, we’ve seen recall elections waged against liberal district attorneys in San Francisco and Los Angeles whose “reformist” policies were easily translated as soft on crime.

Rubio sought to blunt Demings’ law-and-order credentials with endorsements by 55 sheriffs, plus the backing by leaders of the Police Benevolent Association and Florida Police Chiefs Association.

Demings last week made the first television ad of her campaign, touting her 27 years as a police officer, including seven years as Orlando police chief.

“Florida, it’s time to send a cop on the beat to the Senate,” Demings says in that spot. “In the Senate, I’ll protect Florida from bad ideas like defunding the police. That’s just plain crazy.”

It is, indeed, but no serious members of Congress are talking about defunding. The Democrats learned two years ago how poisonous that slogan is, and even President Joe Biden has publicly denounced it. But it is a catchphrase that comes in handy in attack ads.

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Rubio whacks Demings for supporting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, the reform measure named for the Minneapolis man who was killed by a policeman who kept a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The bill, killed by solid GOP opposition, would have required body cameras on cops and restricted use of chokeholds by federal officers. It also set limits on qualified immunity of officers in civil actions and lowered the standard of criminal intent for prosecuting them.

Rubio’s re-election campaign put out a video proclaiming, “Val Demings went to Washington and abandoned Florida law enforcement.” It featured a series of sheriffs and PBA leaders echoing that theme.

The Florida Democratic Party rushed to Demings’ defense, issuing a list of Rubio’s votes on topics it framed as anti-law enforcement. That included his opposition to Biden’s American Rescue Plan, which provided bonuses for first responders and funds for hiring more officers. The party also noted that Rubio opposed legislation to avert a government shut down last fall, which would have affected police paychecks.

Well, yes, but those bills included a lot of other stuff that caused Democrats and Republicans to take positions for or against them. It wasn’t just law and order.

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In a fundraising plea accompanying her first campaign advertisement, Demings acknowledged it’s financially risky to go on TV so early in a state with so many big media markets, “but so much is on the line here that we just can’t afford to wait …”

Her law-enforcement record is the best thing Demings has going for her in the Senate race, but there are several factors going against her.

More from Bill Cotterell:

Race is still a factor. The only African-American to win a competitive statewide contest in Florida was the late Joseph W. Hatchett in 1976, when Supreme Court candidates ran against each other. But judicial contests aren’t like congressional campaigns and Hatchett had the advantage of incumbency.

So does Rubio in seeking his third term in Washington. Florida is now officially a red state, with Republicans leading in voter registration. Hispanic voters are trending Republican lately and the GOP has always known how to play the crime card.

Gov. Claude Kirk promised a war on crime and issued “white papers” on various police and prison problems in 1966. Sen. Connie Mack’s 1988 slogan, aimed at then-Rep. Buddy MacKay, was “Hey, Buddy, you’re a liberal” and Gov. Jeb Bush depicted then-Lt. Gov. MacKay as weak on crime in 1998. Of course, Republicans always promise to sign more death warrants.

Charlie Crist, when he was a Republican attorney general, was known as “Chain Gang Charlie” in his successful 2006 bid for governor.

So, we’ll soon see if Demings’ real-life experience can trump Rubio’s political advantages this year.

Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat capitol reporter. He can be reached at bcotterell@tallahassee.com.

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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Rubio and Demings: Who’s tougher on crime in Florida's US Senate race?