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U.S. Senate tables turn against Florida Democrats

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In an ironic reversal of fortune, a tough and ideological primary process is threatening to divide Democrats as they pursue swing Senate seats like that one abdicated by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016, writes Alex Roarty in National Journal.

In a quartet of key battlegrounds, Democrats are bracing for bitter primaries that party leaders worry will complicate their hopes of retaking a Senate majority. The latest showdown was set Tuesday, when a former top aide to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, Katie McGinty, declared she would seek the party’s nomination for Senate in a race that already includes former congressman and 2010 nominee Joe Sestak.

The Pennsylvania race joins a list of intraparty showdowns that already includes Ohio, where former Gov. Ted Strickland is trying to fend off a young city councilman from Cincinnati, and Illinois, where U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth faces the former president of the Chicago Urban League. In Florida, the most high-profile fight of all awaits, when outspoken U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson takes on U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.

Infighting that produced flawed senatorial candidates like Katherine Harris and Connie Mack in the past is threatening to mar the Dems’ chances of a smooth pickup in the upper chamber that many hoped the candidacy of U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy would deliver. Writes Roarty:

The bevy of primaries is a relatively new phenomenon for Democrats, who have escaped most recent election cycles with nary a serious fight in a state considered a general-election battleground—and it has left leading operatives scrambling to devise a strategy to make sure the strongest possible nominee reaches the general election. The fights have also left Republicans sensing opportunity to help their own chances of holding onto a majority.

“It’s sweet to watch the Democrats struggle with an issue that we had to work through over a couple of election cycles,” said Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a group dedicated to helping Republicans win Senate races. (SLF is a spin-off organization of the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads, which Law also runs.)

Roarty says the internecine squabbling could have real consequences for the Democrats’ chances of regaining a majority. That’s why the party establishment has taken action, with uneven success so far.

Republicans have a handful of potentially damaging primaries of their own, headlined by a four-way race in Florida. But Democrats face extra pressure because their margin of error to win back the Senate—a net gain of four seats if the party retains the presidency, five if it doesn’t—is already slim. One errant primary could tip the balance of power.

That could explain why party leaders, led by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, have made such an unusually aggressive move early to identify and support the candidates they think give the party the best chance to win in the general election. Already, the party has endorsed Duckworth in Illinois, Murphy in Florida, and Strickland in Ohio. The committee has yet to issue an endorsement in Pennsylvania, but its leaders tried unsuccessfully for months to recruit an alternative to Sestak, whom they view as unpredictable. Another influential Democratic group, Emily’s List, has signaled it would be supportive of McGinty’s candidacy.

The endorsement guarantees recipients strategic staff, and—above all—financial support from party leaders and major donors. The bigger question is whether Democratic groups like the DSCC begin spending heavily on TV to support their preferred candidates. Officials there wouldn’t rule it out.

“We don’t forecast or speculate on potential spending decisions, but we are the largest spender in Senate races on the Democratic side,” said Justin Barasky, DSCC spokesman.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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