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Democrats not willing to spend on Florida race, aiding Rubio

Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., comments during a debate with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at the University of Central Florida, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., comments during a debate with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at the University of Central Florida, Monday, Oct. 17, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

MIAMI — Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is getting help from an unlikely quarter as he campaigns for re-election: the Democratic Party.

The party's Senate committee this week abandoned Rubio's Democratic rival, Rep. Patrick Murphy, yanking advertising off the expensive airwaves of the Sunshine State and sending the money to competitive races in smaller states where fundraising dollars go farther.

The decision leaves Murphy, who's raised only about one-third as much as Rubio in recent months, largely on his own.

And it has prompted a round of second-guessing from Democrats who argue that Rubio is beatable, and that the party should not be helping him win a second term that could provide a perch for another presidential bid.

"When Rubio decides to run for president again in four years, there's going to be a whole lot of regret about these decisions being made now," said Florida Democratic strategist Steve Schale.

The decampment by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee comes at a strange time, just as things are looking up for Murphy.

Senate polls in the state have tightened in recent weeks, and there are signs that Florida Republicans aren't as enthusiastic to vote this year with Donald Trump as their presidential nominee. For example, Democrats are doing better than expected in mail-in ballots.

Murphy on Wednesday won the endorsement of The Miami Herald, which in the past has backed Rubio, and released a new ad with President Barack Obama speaking Spanish to urge Hispanics to the polls.

With Trump dragging down Republican candidates across the country, some here see a potential path to victory not just for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, but also for Murphy, a second-term congressman with low name recognition.

"Senator Rubio is a fatally flawed candidate and apparently some of the major newspapers in Florida felt the same way," said Jim Manley, a Democratic consultant in Washington and former aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. "I only hope the DSCC is going to reconsider and start pouring money into the race, because he's beatable."

Reid said in an interview before Wednesday's presidential debate in Las Vegas that the DSCC doesn't have the money it takes to keep up ad buys in Florida, but he said, "we'll just have to wait and see what happens in the next week or so and find out how heavily we're going to be involved there at the end."

A spokeswoman for the Senate Democratic committee, Sadie Weiner, declined to comment on the group's spending decisions. She said Murphy "has done an outstanding job in this race." She added that they'd continue to help him with "targeted investments" over the next three weeks.

That's a stunning turnabout from the DSCC's initial plans.

The committee reserved $10 million in TV advertising back in April, before Rubio got into the race. It ended up spending only an estimated $106,000 on a paltry 208 broadcast commercials to date, according to Kantar's Media political advertising tracker.

In addition, the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC run by former aides to the Democratic leaders, has spent only a fraction of what it had planned for Florida.

The retrenchment has left Murphy swamped on TV: Rubio and his supporters have some 22,000 commercials on local broadcast stations, more than twice as many as Murphy and his allies, Kantar shows

Democrats with knowledge of the spending decisions argue it is prohibitively expensive to advertise in Florida. Advertising by outside groups costs some $3 million a week compared to $1.5 million a week in North Carolina, $1 million a week in Indiana and $750,000 a week in Missouri.

Those three states all have turned into viable pickup opportunities for Democrats more recently, prompting the moves to pull out of Florida and reinvest money there. Democrats need to net four seats to take back control of the Senate.

That argument hasn't stopped other Democrats from complaining about the party's decision to cede the field to Rubio, who lost the GOP presidential primary this year but pointedly refused during a debate this week to commit to serving out another six-year Senate term.

Some of the state's top donors have been unsuccessfully pleading with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, closely involved with DSCC decision-making, to return money to Florida.

Republicans aren't taking any chances. Heavy advertising buys remain on the books, and outside groups are knocking on hundreds of thousands of voters' doors across Florida.

Murphy is getting some help on the ground from the Clinton campaign, which just announced it is spending an additional $6 million on mail and digital advertising to get out the vote in Florida and six other states with competitive down-ballot races.

Priorities USA, a cash-rich super PAC backing Clinton, on Tuesday announced plans to help Democrats in close Senate races as Clinton's team feels increasingly confident about her chances on Election Day.

So far, though, Priorities' list of senators to help doesn't include Murphy.


Associated Press writer Michelle Rindels contributed to this report from Las Vegas. Werner reported from Washington.