WASHINGTON – Florida Rep. Val Demings is planning to challenge Sen. Marco Rubio next year, giving Democrats a boost in a competitive race that could be among a handful that determine control of the Senate, according to two people with knowledge of the plans.
The move ends mounting speculation over the Orlando congresswoman's political future. She had been considering a run for governor in Florida but may have faced a divisive primary against Rep. Charlie Crist, who has already joined that race. In focusing on the Senate instead, Demings could quickly become a front-runner among Democrats and tap into a national network of fundraisers to help finance what will likely be an expensive campaign.
In a tweet, Demings said she was “humbled at the encouraging messages” she's seen on Tuesday and confirmed she's “seriously considering a run for the Senate.”
First elected to Congress in 2016, the national profile for the 64-year-old Demings has rapidly expanded. She was an impeachment manager during the first trial against President Donald Trump and was considered a leading contender to be Joe Biden's running mate. As the first female police chief in Orlando, she is particularly appealing to some Democrats for her experience as a Black woman with a background in law enforcement.
Her plans were first reported by Politico.
While Demings' entrance in the race will attract attention, Rubio is still a formidable candidate. Elected during the tea party wave of 2010, he easily won reelection in 2016. Florida, meanwhile, has steadily trended in favor of Republicans. After twice backing Barack Obama, the state swung to Trump in 2016. Trump added to his margin last year, carrying the state by more than 3 percentage points and making inroads with some Latino voters, who dominate politics in Florida's southern tip.
Rubio wouldn't comment specifically on a Demings challenge, but said Tuesday he welcomed the campaign.
“Democrats are going to run somebody,” he said on Capitol Hill. “They'll have a primary and someone will come out of their primary. We look forward to comparing their record to ours, what I stand for to what they stand for.”
Crist, a former Republican governor who is now a Democrat, said Demings would “be a great candidate for the Senate.”
“I find it very encouraging to the future of our party,” he said Tuesday.
Despite her name recognition, Demings will likely have to face other Democrats in a primary for the Senate seat. U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, another Orlando area Democrat, is widely believed to be considering a run. She has traveled across Florida in recent weeks to introduce herself to a broader audience and those close to her say she is expected to make a decision soon.
Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson has also signaled that he is considering a run.
If she emerges as the nominee, Demings could be one of several Black women seeking statewide office next year. In neighboring Georgia, Stacey Abrams may launch a second campaign to become the nation's first Black woman governor after narrowly losing the race in 2018. And in North Carolina, Cheri Beasley, the first Black woman to serve as that state's Supreme Court chief justice, has already announced a Senate campaign.
A Demings candidacy could test the priorities of progressives who will play a key role in the primary. While she could make history as the state's first Black woman elected to the Senate, her three-and-a-half-year tenure as Orlando's police chief could become a vulnerability among those in the Democratic base who are leery of law enforcement at a time of reckoning on racism and police brutality.
Demings led a police force that has grappled with a long record of excessive-force allegations. She often faced calls for reforms and more transparency during her tenure, which ended in 2011.
From 2010 to 2014, the police department faced at least 47 lawsuits against its officers and paid out more than $3.3 million in damages, according to an investigation by local news station WFTV. And an Orlando Sentinel investigation covering the same period found that Orlando officers used force in 5.6% of arrests — more than twice the rate of some other police agencies — and used force disproportionately against Black suspects.
Demings’ defenders note she was credited with reducing violent crime in the city by 40% at the time of her retirement from the department.
Her move toward a Senate run could have implications for other Democrats in Florida. It may give Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is currently the only Democrat holding statewide office, the space to run in a primary with Crist for governor. She has spent months teasing the prospect and her most recent video suggested she would make an announcement June 1.
That underscores the fluidity of politics in Florida at the moment, particularly among Democrats who have struggled in recent elections to win high-profile races.
In the last gubernatorial election three years ago, Republican Ron DeSantis defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum by four-tenths of a percentage point. That same year, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson lost his post to then Gov. Rick Scott by a mere 10,000 votes out of more than eight million cast.
Calvan reported from Tallahassee, Florida. Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.