Preview of US Senate Races in Florida and Utah
Elections & Politics Policy Brief #34 | By: Ian Milden | September 8, 2022
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Control of the U.S. Senate will be up for grabs in the 2022 mid-term elections. Competitive races in key states will determine the balance of power. In this brief, I will preview the U.S. Senate races in Florida and Utah.
In Florida, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is running for a third term. Rubio was first elected to the Senate in 2010 after winning a three-way race. He won re-election in 2016 after losing the Republican nomination for President.
Democrats have nominated Congresswoman Val Demings to run against Rubio. She currently represents the Orlando area in Congress. Before her election to Congress in 2016, Val Demings was the chief of police in Orlando. Demings has posted strong fundraising numbers, and her campaign has spent heavily on advertising.
Quality polling for the U.S. Senate race in Florida is hard to find. A University of North Florida poll found Demings ahead by four percentage points, but many well-connected Democrats in Florida are skeptical of those numbers. The University of North Florida’s poll for the Governor’s race had the eventual nominee Charlie Crist (D-FL) trailing Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried (D-FL) by four points just before the primary occurred (Crist won the primary by over 20 points).
Some polls conducted for outside groups that support Democrats have found that the race is within the margin of error, though that would likely be a best-case scenario for Democrats in Florida.
Val Demings is a good candidate, but I am skeptical of her chances of winning due to the challenges that Democrats are facing in Florida. Democrats no longer lead Republicans in voter registration numbers.
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The state party is having several organizational challenges. National donors are reluctant to invest substantial amounts of money in statewide races in Florida specifically due to the expensive nature of running television ads statewide and repeated election cycles of disappointment for Democrats in Florida.
Senator Rubio also tends to overperform in Miami when compared to most Republicans, which also hurts Demings’ chances of winning in the fall. The 2020 Presidential election results illustrate why this is a challenge for Demings. If you look at the 2020 Presidential map in Florida, Joe Biden underperformed in Miami compared with other recent Presidential nominees.
While Biden did marginally better than previous Democratic nominees in many of the other urban areas in Florida, it wasn’t enough to overcome his underperformance in Miami. Congresswoman Demings will almost certainly face a similar challenge this fall. Given these challenges, a Rubio victory in the fall is the most likely outcome.
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In Utah, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) is running for a third term. Lee defeated Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT) in 2010 to take the seat. Since taking office, Lee has had one of the highest rates of voting against bills in the U.S. Senate.
Senate races in Utah are not usually competitive. Republican candidates have typically won U.S. Senate races in Utah by large margins. The last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate race in Utah was Frank Moss in 1970.
Frank Moss will still be the last Democrat to win a U.S. Senate race by the time Mitt Romney’s seat is up for reelection in 2024 because the Democrats did not nominate a candidate to face Mike Lee.
Lee’s main challenger this fall is Evan McMullin, an independent candidate who is best known for running as a protest candidate for President in 2016.
In 2016, McMullin only got on the ballot in a few states. His best performance was in his home state of Utah, where he won 21.5% of the vote. Before his run for President, McMullin worked as a CIA officer and a staff member for the House Foreign Relations Committee. He also worked for the House Republican Conference.
McMullin argues that Mike Lee needs to be replaced in the Senate because he is not productive for Utah and Lee is too closely aligned with Trump. McMullin specifically cites Lee’s involvement in identifying people who would help Trump overturn the results of the 2020 election. McMullin is attempting to form a coalition of unaffiliated voters, anti-Trump Republicans, and Democrats. Former Congressman Ben McAdams (D-UT) agreed to support McMullin and help get Democrats in Utah to support McMullin.
McMullin supports environmental conservation, protecting voting rights, and reducing the influence of money in political campaigns, which appeal to Democrats. He also supports increased funding and training for police departments, increased security at the border, and measures to counter terrorist activity, which appeal to Republicans. Combatting inflation and reducing the costs of healthcare are also priorities that McMullin lists on his website.
A poll conducted by Dan Jones and Associates for the Deseret News in mid-July found Senator Lee to be ahead by five percentage points. This margin was similar to where the race was when they polled the race in mid-May. Nearly 20% of voters said they were not sure whom they would vote for or would vote for one of the third-party candidates. This suggests that voter persuasion is going to be more important in this election than in many other elections for U.S. Senate seats.
McMullin had the support of 63% of Democrats, 41% of unaffiliated voters, and 28% of Republicans. This data suggests McMullin has the potential to increase his support among Democrats. However, increasing support among Democrats is challenging without alienating the Republicans who support McMullin. Lee performs very poorly among self-identified moderate voters, and McMullin may have some room to increase his support there, although it is difficult to tell by how much with the available data.
McMullin faces a difficult balancing act trying to get support from Democrats and Republicans, which requires him to persuade voters that he’s worth voting for as a more pragmatic option. Voters are not always in the mood to vote for a pragmatic candidate, especially if they have several policy disagreements with the candidate.
Additionally, Utah is a very conservative state and that gives Mike Lee a solid floor of support. Lee’s campaign argues that his internal polling shows him further ahead than the public polls do. With the challenges McMullin faces as a candidate, Lee is more likely to win re-election. However, McMullin has a real chance of winning this race.