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Democrat Patrick Murphy announces run for U.S. Senate

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South Florida Democratic Congressman Patrick Murphy has declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in Florida in 2016.

“It just boils down to where I think being in the U.S. Senate, we can really have a great impact,” Murphy told SaintPetersBlog late Sunday afternoon by phone, giving his first interview after declaring that he is a candidate for office.

Murphy becomes the first official entrant from either party to announce his intentions for the seat currently occupied by Marco Rubio. The GOP incumbent has been ambivalent about his 2016 plans, seemingly leaning in towards a full fledged run for the presidency, creating a statewide seat that in a presidential year, Democrats fell they have a legitimate shot at.

Statewide Democrats are high on the 31-year-old Murphy (he turns 32 next week), and why shouldn’t they be? He’s shown an ability to win in a conservative leaning district, and demonstrate fundraising prowess. And if there was anything definitive that arose during Murphy’s first conversation with this reporter, it’s that his brand is so much about being inclusive. He’s a centrist with Democratic Party core values who sounds remarkably poised to try to transcend partisan politics, in a way that’s somewhat redolent of Barack Obama‘s promise to bring everybody together in 2007-2008.

“Everybody I’m talking with – Republicans, Democrats, and independents – the common thread is that people are tired of the partisanship,” he said. “Tired of the gridlock up there. And that’s something that I campaigned on in my first race several years ago, and something that I’ve at least proven – to show that we can overcome and be someone who reaches across the aisle and get things done.”

Murphy was first elected to represent Florida’s 18th Congressional District in 2012, when he narrowly defeated Republican Allen West in a race that garnered national attention. His margin was so close against the Tea Party favorite that it took two full weeks after the election before West conceded, falling just short of the  0.5 percent threshold to automatically trigger a recount of all votes. It was considered a major upset, considering that West outspent Murphy by more than a 4-1 margin.

Despite that victory, the former CPA was hardly a sure bet going into the 2014 congressional elections. Just months after defeating West, University of Virginia Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato dubbed Murphy “the most vulnerable Democrat” in the country. But it was a completely different story last November, as Murphy trounced former state GOP representative Carl Domino by 20 percentage points, after raising $5 million to Domino’s $600,000.

Murphy comes advertised as a centrist Democrat. He’s been critical of President Obama when it comes to cutting Medicare Advantage to help pay for the Affordable Care Act and was one of only six Democrats in Congress who voted to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress. Some observers feel that centrist background could leave him vulnerable from a more liberal challenger in the party, and they don’t get much more liberal than Congressman Alan Grayson, who has been making noises that he is seriously considering entering the race. And he was registered Republican before becoming a Democrat.

When asked about the perception by some Democrats that he’s too moderate, Murphy responds that he had a contested Democratic primary during his initial bid for Congress in 2012.

“My stances cut across the political spectrum,” he said, clearly anticipating the question. “I’ve made it very clear, number one, that I’m a strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. I vocally supported raising the minimum wage, and voted for it. One hundred-percent I support a woman woman’s right to choose. I support marriage equality. I mean, these are all issues that I’m very vocal about, and a strong supporter of.”

But then he quickly asserts that he supports cutting “wasteful government spending,” and fixing the tax code, though he didn’t provide specifics about how to do that.

On immigration reform, he’s quick to criticize Rubio, one of the “Gang of 8” in the bipartisan Senate group that led the bill’s passage.

“He was for it, and then he was against it. He came out very vocally against it. So he’s been on both sides of that issue,” Murphy says regarding Rubio’s leadership on that pivotal issue. He says he still has hopes that House Speaker John Boehner will bring the bill before the House of Representatives, though that appears will never happen.

Quizzed about President Obama’s negotiations regarding a nuclear deal with Iran, Murphy was much more ready to denounce the 46 GOP Senators who joined Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton in signing off on a letter to Iran’s leaders warning that a future U.S. Congress could reverse any nuclear deal. He calls it “reckless,” and “ill-advised.”

“Anything that’s done as it relates to foreign affairs in such a partisan issue is dangerous,” he says. “Anything that is written to the Ayatollah, only bolsters the credibility of the Ayatollah, and makes it that much tougher for any type of diplomacy to take place.”

But he doesn’t bite when asked to comment on the obvious division between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Asked if he would support cranking up sanctions against Iran if there is no deal made at all, he danced a bit before coming down on supporting more sanctions.

When asked about the diplomatic breakthrough that the Obama administration made with Cuba in December, Murphy said “you have to look at it from several different viewpoints.”

He said that after talking to the local Cuban community, “A lot of them have really come around to say, ‘You know what? This policy we’ve had for 53 years isn’t working. In fact it’s probably only empowers the current regime down there, and if you really care from the humanitarian perspective about the Cuban people, and helping them out, than we’ve got to change direction here.”

He then brought up an incident that definitely has slipped under the wire. It’s when a Russian spy ship was docked at a Havana port around the same time that U.S. State Department officials were meeting with their Cuban counterparts.

“We know exactly what was on that spy ship, and it was to intercept emails and phone calls and conversations,” he says. “So, who do we want there with the Castro regime? Do we want Iran or Venezuela, or Russia? Or would we rather have some more influence with a country 90 miles from our shores? To me, that’s a no brainer. This is a discussion that I hope contirnues to take place and continues to move in a direction that the president outlined.”

SaintPetersBlog checked in with a couple of analysts in South Florida to get their take on Murphy.

“When it comes to women, and seniors and kids and working families, he’s on the right side of all of those issues, so I don’t see him as a DINO at all,” says one Broward County Democratic consultant who now works for a nonprofit and thus did not want to be quoted by name.

It’s hardly a surprise he’s running, as he was spotted last week at a meet-and-greet event held at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington D.C.

“He comes across as likeable, personable, and I can see why I think that in the Democratic party he’s seen a rising star,” says Palm Beach County political consultant Rick Asnani. He says Murphy absolutely crosses party lines in terms of support. “I think that was evident in the 2014 election, and that may have been part of the momentum that generated people taking a closer look at him (for Senate).”

CD-18 contains all of St. Lucie and Martin counties and part of Palm Beach County.

Although Rubio has yet to announce his plans for 2016, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera are considered likely to enter the race on the GOP side if Rubio opts out. A Mason-Dixon poll released earlier this month showed Murphy trailing both Rubio and Atwater by double-digits.

Murphy says the seat is not about Marco Rubio or any other individual that calculated in his decision to run for Senate.

“It’s about a senator who’s going to represent all the people in this state,” he says energetically. “Not just the Tea Party or not just this small group of people. We need leaders in Washington who will work across the aisle to create jobs, to preserve Social Security and Medicare, to protect the environment, to do the things that Floridians care about, and find those issues that cut across the political spectrum. So yes, I’m not gaming this in my head about who’s going to run and this is because it’s deep inside me. It’s what I’m passionate about and where I think I can make an even bigger difference.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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