To Beat Marco Rubio, Val Deming's Inner Circle Says She Must 'Double Down' on Latinos, Rebut Socialism

The last time a Democrat lost a Florida Senate race was in 2018, when Rick Scott beat former senator Bill Nelson, who was doomed by tepid Latino support and the belief within the party that he took Hispanics for granted.

Representative Val Demings will have to avoid that mistake, and other political landmines with Latinos, after announcing that she is "seriously considering" running against incumbent Senator Marco Rubio in a state that has only become more unfriendly terrain for Democrats since then.

"Bill Nelson in 2018 is the poster child of ignoring the Latino vote in Florida, and that should be the warning for everybody to remember," said Democratic strategist Jose Parra, who has worked with candidates in the state.

He said because of the recent history, Demings will have to "double down" on outreach to Latinos and taking them seriously.

"She's going to need to triple and quadruple down on the Hispanic vote since she will probably do well with Black voters," Parra said. "She needs to do that if she wants to avoid the Biden numbers of 2020."

Latino voters make up approximately 17% of the state's electorate, with Black voters comprising 14%.

Biden's November showing included bleeding votes in the traditional Democratic stronghold of Miami-Dade County, where he won by only 7 points after Hillary Clinton easily took the county by 29.6 points. For his part, Nelson, who started his Latino outreach in the final weeks of the 2018 campaign, only received 54% of the vote, compared to Scott's 45%, which came after a robust presence on the airwaves and on the ground in Hispanic communities.

An advisor to Demings, who asked for anonymity because her official announcement has not yet been made, said that from the outset her operation understands the critical importance of speaking to Latino voters.

"I think she has to," the advisor told Newsweek. "You're going to see early moves from the campaign after it announces to make Latino outreach a key part of the campaign," including "a full court press in the Latino community, especially in South Florida."

Openly diagnosing the problem Democrats have often avoided in Florida, the advisor said traditional approaches to winning the state are no longer viable, given that Democratic Party "numbers in Miami-Dade have eroded over the last couple cycles, and that's what's making Florida trend away from Democrats slightly."

Florida political observers agree Rubio likely holds an advantage as the incumbent and as a Republican in a head-to-head matchup with Demings, provided she wins an expected contested primary. In 2016, he split the Latino vote against his Democratic opponent, winning 48% of the vote.

Meanwhile, Rubio's campaign has signaled they will be happy to run on his record, calling it "unmatched."

"He wrote and passed the bipartisan PPP program that saved millions of jobs in Florida, wrote and passed the historic VA Accountability Act, fought to double the child tax credit despite Democrat opposition, and led the way on getting Everglades restoration efforts back on track," Mark Morgan, his campaign manager told Newsweek.

Fernand Amandi, the top consultant for Obama's Latino voter polling during both campaigns, said Demings challenge will be that she must make inroads with a community where she is "for the most part, frankly unknown."

But he added that she can whittle down that disadvantage if she starts doing so early to make headway in the "65 counties where she's never been on a ballot before."

"While Val Demings is a formidable candidate who can very well take the seat from Rubio, her team needs to understand that unless she overperforms with Hispanics at Obama-like levels there is no chance she can defeat Rubio," he told Newsweek. "What makes Marco Rubio so formidable, despite his utter lack of accomplishments and national punchline status as a senator, is he is still able to fluently campaign in English and Spanish in every corner of the state without a translator, and that can't be dismissed out of hand."

Demings team understands that part of that bilingual messaging will have to be on addressing and rejecting the stigma of socialism, which Republicans used to hammer Democrats nationwide in 2020, especially in Florida, where the issue has increased salience in the minds of many who came from Latin American countries like Cuba and Venezuela.

"I think it has to be emphatic," Demings advisor said of rejecting the socialist label, stressing that it has to be done more effectively than Democrats did in 2020. "It has to be more than just denying it's true."

Demings inner circle believes that her resume will work in her favor, with 27 years in law enforcement and the first woman to become Orlando police chief. They believe "police officer" can trigger a lot of connotations for people, but "a police officer is not a socialist."

Her advisor cited the experience of Representative Abigail Spanberger, whom Republicans tried to paint as a socialist, an attack they believe was blunted by her background as a former CIA agent.

"Because she was a CIA officer it didn't ring as true, and she ended up winning a Republican district, while Donna Shalala in Florida didn't have that type of profile," the Demings advisor said, invoking one of the major losses for Democrats in November. "They will still run that play, but we have a different play to counter it, and it's more effective."

It is unclear if Demings will go as far as Spanberger in denouncing socialism, who blamed it for her close win on a November conference call with Democrats.

"We do not need to use the word 'socialist' or 'socialism' ever again," Spanberger said at the time, according to reports.

Rubio's approach to socialism is clear, however.

"His fight against China's Communist Party got him sanctioned and banned by Beijing, and he is a leading voice on the dangers of socialism," Morgan, his campaign manager, said.

But Demings, who recently went viral for clashing with Representative Jim Jordan, whom she accused of using police as political "pawns" on the House floor, is seen as savvy and curious among Democrats in the state.

Democratic strategist Evelyn Pérez-Verdía recalled giving a presentation in Orlando in 2014 to the Democratic Hispanic caucus about Latinos in Florida to about 40 people. As she addressed the issue of unafilliated voters, Pérez-Verdía heard a voice boom from the back of the room. "Can you please speak louder? I cannot hear you," Demings called out.

Since then, Demings has impressed Pérez-Verdía as a strong woman who wants to learn more about Latinos. But she said the key for the former police chief will be defining herself before Republicans are able to define her as a socialist.

"Sadly enough, we have to counter that with who we really are," Pérez-Verdía said. "I know Val Demings is not a socialist, but they even called moderate senator Bill Nelson a socialist."

Rubio's campaign clearly believes Latin America and Latino voters are his territory, with a source close to the campaign saying he understands the hemisphere very well, but also that Hispanic voters care about issues that other Floridians care about, like good schools, good jobs, and safe communities.

One issue Rubio may stress on the campaign trail is immigration, the source said.

"Coyote networks are going around saying there's a new guy in charge, you can get into the country," the source said, referring to President Biden's policies and rhetoric. "The circumstances are ripe for exploitation, and Rubio understands that and can speak to that."

Rubio is seen as less well-formed in the minds of Florida voters, unlike DeSantis, according to the Demings advisor, who argued that while he may be a two-term incumbent, "people don't have strong feelings about him."

"Latin America policy is domestic politics in a lot of South Florida, but the Latino community is not monolithic, and Val understands how to reach out to diverse communities," the advisor told Newsweek. "Rubio has incumbency, and he has name ID advantage, but he's not an immovable object, even in the Latino community in Florida."

val demings
U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) speaks before the introduction of Democratic U.S. Vice Presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) during an early voting mobilization event at the Central Florida Fairgrounds on October 19, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. Octavio Jones/Getty Images