TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Sen. Marco Rubio distanced himself from Donald Trump as he sought a second term. It turns out he didn’t have to.
Rubio won easily Tuesday and Trump narrowly carried Florida over Hillary Clinton. It would have taken a comfortable Clinton victory to tip the scales in the Senate race in favor of Democratic U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, the lesser-known challenger who based a large part of his strategy on tying Rubio to Trump.
Florida’s Senate race was almost as bitter as the presidential contest, but Rubio told supporters to look forward and warned that divisiveness needs to be put in the past.
“I hope that when I and my colleagues return to work in Washington, D.C., we will set a better example,” Rubio said. “I know you people feel betrayed and you have a right to. Every major institution in our society has failed us — the media, the government, big business, Wall Street, academia … So people are so frustrated, but we must channel that anger and frustration into something positive. Let it move us forward with energy to confront and solve our challenges.”
Florida voters sent 10 new members to the U.S. House, including former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who will go to Washington in his first victory as a Democrat. Incumbent Republican U.S. Reps. David Jolly and John Mica were voted out of office after their districts were redrawn with more Democrats.
Floridians also approved a constitutional amendment to legalize medical marijuana.
Murphy, a 33-year-old second-term congressman who wasn’t well known before winning the Democratic primary, tied his hopes to a Trump-backlash that never panned out. He campaigned repeatedly with Clinton, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and each time reminded voters that Rubio was still supporting Trump despite calling him an erratic conman.
Rubio refused to campaign with Trump and often wouldn’t even mention him by name. The two sparred frequently when Rubio sought the GOP presidential nomination. Rubio said he stood by his criticism of the billionaire businessman and reality TV star, but said he disagrees with Clinton on virtually everything.
After Trump trounced him in Florida’s presidential primary, Rubio dropped out of the race and said he wouldn’t seek a second Senate term. He changed his mind two days before the deadline to make the ballot.
“Let’s say this is a lot better than the last time I did one of these,” he joked with supporters, referring to his failed presidential campaign.
Murphy at one point nearly closed the gap in the polls despite national Democrats diverting their money from Florida to Senate races where television ads are less expensive. Republicans attacked Murphy for embellishing his resume by claiming to be a small business owner and a certified public accountant before being elected to Congress in 2012. Murphy was a part owner of an environmental cleanup company, but the business was set up by his wealthy father, and he was a licensed CPA in Colorado, but not in Florida, where he worked at an accounting firm.
In his concession speech, Murphy also called for unity.
“This has been one of the most important elections in any of our lifetimes. It’s been one of the most challenging as well for our country. Too often it seemed that the negative attacks and partisanship would overshadow the issues,” Murphy said. “It is still possible to put partisan differences aside at times and fight for the goals that are bigger than any party and certainly than any single politician.”
While some Democrats acknowledge he wasn’t very well known, they felt he could have pulled an upset if he wasn’t abandoned by his party.
“I was disappointed the national Democratic Party did not support him or see him as being able to challenge Rubio,” said Pat Allen, a 51-year-old teacher from Tallahassee.
Rubio was able to keep his support among Republicans who boosted him to office six years ago in a come-from-behind race against then-Gov. Crist.
“I think he has a good backstory. I think he is a hard worker,” said Diego Madrigal, a 34-year-old Orlando Republican.
Florida also will send 10 new representatives to the U.S. House. Retirements, a state Supreme Court order to redraw congressional maps, and members leaving to seek other political office have led to the eight open seats. Crist defeated Jolly in a newly drawn district that now has more Democrats. And 12-term Republican U.S. Rep. John Mica lost to Democrat Stephanie Murphy, who was making her first run for office.
“We got into this race to focus on the issues. We wanted to protect women’s rights, we want to stand up our veterans. And we wanted to make our communities safer by passing common sense gun safety measures,” Murphy said. “We didn’t just get into this race to make a difference. We wanted to make a point. Tonight we made our point loud and clear to politicians across the country that dysfunction and deadlock will no longer be tolerated.”
Florida voters also decided to amend the state constitution to legalize medical marijuana, broadening access to pot beyond the limited therapeutic uses approved by the Legislature two years ago. Two years ago, a similar measure failed.
AP reporters Terry Spencer in Miami, Kelli Kennedy in Palm Beach Gardens, Terrance Harris in Orlando and Joe Reedy in Tallahassee contributed to this report.
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