This week, Politico reported that Florida Rep. Val Demings is planning to challenge Marco Rubio for his Senate seat in 2022. The 64-year-old Demings boasts an impressive résumé and rose to national prominence during her three terms in the House, including from her role as the only non-lawyer on the House impeachment committee. Slate spoke with Sharon Wright Austin, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, and Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, to learn what Demings needs to win in a Republican-controlled state. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What has been Demings’s role in Florida’s political landscape?
Jewett: She was very well known here in Central Florida, worked her way up through a career in law enforcement, and became the first Black female police chief of the Orlando Police Department. And, of course, she went on to run for a seat in Congress, and has won and been re-elected. If you look at her biography, she came up from a tough family background, in terms of economics. And so, she’s really worked hard and has had a record of accomplishment in public service, the police department, and now in Congress.
Austin: [Her law enforcement role] was significant in the sense that there are not very many female chiefs of police, and there are even a smaller number of Black women serving as chiefs of police. … She’s a very outspoken congresswoman during the brief time that she’s been there. Her name was mentioned as a possible running mate for Joe Biden before Kamala Harris was chosen, and she also has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate. It’s obvious that her future is very bright.
How has her law enforcement position impacted the perception of her in Florida?
Jewett: I think her identity as a black woman [and] her career spent as the chief law enforcement officer for the city of Orlando have influenced her views quite a bit. And I think that has been a positive for her, politically.
Austin: There is a segment of Democratic voters who believe in defunding the police with all of the negative footage that you’ve seen about George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and the other racialized crimes that have taken place in the nation. I think that’s going to be something that some of her opponents might look at, her connection to the police as a former police chief, and think of that as a negative. But on the other hand, there are some people who understand the importance of the police. And despite what you’ve seen with Floyd and those types of racialized crimes, I think a significant number of people understand that the police are necessary, and they don’t want to defund the police, and they don’t agree with progressives who believe in those things. Those voters will probably look at her and see a law-and-order candidate. So really, it all depends on how her campaign portrays her police background.
Can Demings defeat Rubio?
Jewett: If Demings makes it to the general, she’s got a shot. Florida is still fairly equally divided by party registration. And Demings does have a compelling personal story. I think she would also straddle more to the moderate wing of the Democratic Party and would certainly be able to give Rubio a battle. One might argue that she’s got one of the better chances of Democrats running.
Austin: She’s going to be fighting a very uphill battle running against Rubio because it’s difficult to defeat an incumbent, first of all, and it’s difficult to defeat a U.S. Senate candidate because they tend to have a lot more name recognition and a lot more funds. Rubio has the support of the Republican Party. He hasn’t done anything to make anybody angry, so he’s going to get endorsements from Republicans. Unlike some other members of Congress who voted for Donald Trump’s impeachment and offended people, Rubio has been just very allegiant to the party. But when Andrew Gillum ran for governor in 2018, no one expected him to have a realistic chance of even getting out of the primary, and he only lost by about 0.4 percent of the vote.
It’s possible that she could put together the type of campaign that could really give him a competitive race. And it is possible that she could win. She has a popular approval rating in the state of Florida. She has a lot of people who have been asking her to run for higher office. She can get support from a broad array of voters across the state. I think that she could run a really good campaign.
What does she need to defeat Rubio?
Austin: She’s going to need money, and a lot of support from the Democratic Party in terms of resources. She’s going to need to have a very organized campaign because she’s going to have to get volunteers to go knock on doors to mobilize people—especially to mobilize people on college campuses. That’s what Gillum was successful at doing.
I would say that the greatest obstacle is the lack of funding, because you’re running against an incumbent who has a well-funded campaign, who’s made a lot of connections and gotten a lot of donors over the years. That’s the main problem, and then also some Black women have said that they’ve not gotten enough support from their political party.
This month, the Republican-controlled Florida legislature passed new voting restrictions similar to those passed in Georgia, and additional regulations have meant that 900,000 former felons in the state have yet to be enfranchised after their rights were restored in 2018. What role could these changes play in the 2022 campaign?
Jewett: That’s been a bit of a disappointment for progressives in the state [over felon voting rights], because they were hoping that they would be able to mobilize many former felons, get them to register, and get them turned out to vote. I think what Democrats have to do is just work within the confines of the new law [which requires former felons to pay all outstanding fines and fees before having their voting rights restored]. They’ll have to try to get more felons eligible by helping them pay off their debts, or by getting those debts waived.
On this new election reform bill, I will say that we don’t 100 percent know which of the changes are going to be upheld in court. … When I look at these changes, I don’t see a voting apocalypse, but it does put some hurdles up that may disproportionately impact minority and poor voters.
Austin: If it’s a close election it could really make a difference if people who are former felons—if they’re not able to vote, that could hurt her campaign. But then again, it could also hurt Rubio’s campaign, because we don’t know that these people are Democrats—we just assumed that they are.
There was talk of Demings running for Florida governor instead. Why do you think she chose the Senate?
Jewett: I expect that the two major decision points were, one, “Which of these jobs could I have the most impact and be an effective leader: governor or Senate?” Two, because it’s politics, I’m sure another part of it was, “Where do I think I have the best chance to win?” Nobody wants to get into a race if they think they’re going to lose. They want to get in because they think they have a path to victory
As of this moment, I might agree that her skill set seems like it might be a better sell for a Senate race. Gov. Ron DeSantis’s poll numbers have come back up over 50 percent after dropping during the pandemic, and he’s always been fairly popular with the Republican base and the Trump base, and he’s been getting a lot of national publicity. So the governor’s race might have been the tougher race right now.
Austin: I think that she’s running for the Senate because she’s been in the House and because she knows that most of the major decisions are made in the Senate. I think that that might have been something that might have influenced her, or she probably has been frustrated as a member of the House, where you can only do so much. There really is a need for the Democrats—for either party—to have a majority in the Senate, because if you have the Senate majority, then that really can determine whether or not laws are passed.
Also, it would benefit who whoever the Democratic candidate is in 2024—whether it be Biden running for re-election or Harris or someone else—because Florida is a very important state, and if there’s a Democratic senator replacing Rubio, that person would then be in a position to campaign for whomever the Democratic candidate is and maybe even tip the scales of Florida in favor of the Democrat.