Senate Democrats know who they want to run against incumbent Florida Republican Rick Scott next year. But the message hasn’t gotten through to Florida Democrats.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials are trying to convince former Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell to jump into a race against Scott, multiple Democrats familiar with the discussions but who weren’t authorized to speak openly, told POLITICO. Scott is a multimillionaire who can pour huge sums of his own money into the contest and has won three statewide races in Florida by razor-thin margins.
But while Mucarsel-Powell plays the waiting game, Navy veteran Phil Ehr is preparing to launch a Senate campaign “soon,” according to a person familiar with his plans. In an interview, Ehr confirmed that he is seriously considering a run and has already started to put together a political team.
“I’m testing the waters right now and so far, I’m very much encouraged by the reception that I’ve received,” he said. “Florida needs good representation in the United States Senate. Rick Scott is just not up to it and he needs a challenger that’s going to stand up for the people.”
A number of top Democrats in Florida, a once-perennial battleground state that has taken a sharp turn to the right in recent years, have ruled out a Senate bid next year. To make matters worse, the party’s bench there is thin. Now they are looking likely to face a multicandidate, costly primary that drains the eventual nominee of resources, something the party had been hoping to avoid.
And though many national Democrats have written off Florida for the foreseeable future, the state is one of the only opportunities the party has to flip a Senate seat in 2024.
Despite the state’s red hue, Democrats consider Scott, who has never run during a presidential election year when turnout is expected to be considerably higher, as vulnerable for multiple reasons. On the top of that list is his “Rescue America” plan that called for all federal programs, including Medicare and Social Security, to sunset every five years. After getting blasted by both Democrats and Republicans for the proposal, Scott earlier this year backtracked and said that his idea would not affect either program.
“There are pythons more popular than Rick Scott’s plan to cut Medicare and Social Security,” said Maeve Coyle, a spokesperson for the DSCC. “Democrats will look for every opportunity to put Republicans on defense, including in states like Florida.”
The question, however, is who is the best Democrat to wage what would be an enormously expensive, uphill battle in a state that saw Republicans win up and down the ballot last year. Mucarsel-Powell, a senior adviser for the gun control group Giffords, was previously elected to a Miami congressional seat but then lost in 2020. She was born in Ecuador and immigrated to the U.S. when she was 14.
Schumer has personally talked to Mucarsel-Powell about running and the DSCC plans to do polling this week about the Florida race, according to people familiar with the outreach. But Mucarsel-Powell has not yet committed to a campaign.
She is making the moves of someone who is at least considering a run, however. She attended this past weekend’s Leadership Blue conference held by Florida Democrats in Miami Beach. (Ehr was also there.) Mucarsel-Powell sidestepped questions about whether she would run against Scott, saying instead that for now she is focused on her work for Giffords.
But Ehr doesn’t appear to be waiting for Mucarsel-Powell to consider her options. Ehr previously ran for the House in 2020 against MAGA firebrand Rep. Matt Gaetz. He lost in the Republican stronghold by nearly 31 percentage points, but raised $2 million in the process. During that campaign, he touted his military background and his past life as a Republican before former President Donald Trump won in 2016. Ehr also tried to take on Gaetz in 2018, but lost that year in the Democratic primary.
Ehr said he has spent much of this year providing humanitarian aid in Ukraine. He previously served as a Naval commander and currently works as the president of the George Washington Initiative, a group aimed at fighting disinformation.
Ehr argued that Scott is vulnerable in part due to his plan to sunset Social Security and Medicare, an issue that President Joe Biden and liberal groups sought to tie to GOP candidates across the country last year. Scott was at the helm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2022, when Republicans suffered a disappointing year and lost a seat in the Senate.
“Mitch McConnell was right: The voters of Florida are going to punish him for that,” said Ehr, referring to a comment that the GOP Senate leader made last year about Scott facing a potentially challenging reelection campaign in 2024.
There are also other Democrats waiting in the wings who could jump into the race. Names that have been floated include Tampa-based State House Democratic Leader Fentrice Driskell and Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins. Jenkins received a speaking slot at the Leadership Blue gala, where she revved up the crowd by mentioning her battles with state Rep. Randy Fine, a GOP legislator who sponsored the bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors.
When asked about the race, Driskell said she is “focused on my role as minority leader.” She added, however, that “I think Rick Scott has been an awful senator for Florida. Along with Ron DeSantis, they have put the worst of Florida on the national stage.”
Jenkins, meanwhile, said she was convinced she “can win this race and rid Florida of corrupt career politicians” after she received positive feedback during the Florida Democrats’ annual event last weekend.
Meanwhile, former Rep. Alan Grayson, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for a central Florida congressional seat in 2022, has already filed for the Senate race. A number of other lesser-known Democrats have thrown their hats in the ring as well, including former House candidate Matt Boswell.
Asked for comment for this story, Scott spokesperson Chris Hartline, said, “Between disgraced former Congressman Alan Grayson, and two losing congressional candidates, Chuck Schumer and the Florida Democrats are really doing a bang up job recruiting candidates. I hope they keep it up.”
Ehr said that he will make a final decision on whether to pursue a Senate run in the next few weeks.