Crime and policing are front and center in Florida Senate battle

Democratic Rep. Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief, calls the idea of defunding the police "just crazy" in a new campaign commercial that started running this week, as she challenges Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in a high profile, high-stakes, and expensive Senate race.

But Rubio – as he landed another major law enforcement endorsement on Friday  – criticized Demings for not pushing back against the idea of defunding the police two summers ago, "when it was really mattering, when they were setting cars on fire."

Demings, who spent nearly three decades in law enforcement and who rose through the ranks to become Orlando’s first female police chief, spotlights her crime-fighting resume in her latest campaign commercial.

"Protect and serve Florida – that’s what I’ve done - as a police officer and as chief," Demings says in the statewide TV spot, which is backed by a massive eight-figure ad buy. 

"In the Senate, I’ll protect Florida from bad ideas like defunding the police. That’s just crazy," she emphasizes. "Florida - it’s time to send a cop on the beat to the Senate."

And Demings campaign spotlighted support from law enforcement, including Orange County Sheriff John Mina, a former Orlando chief of police who said Demings has "always been supportive of the police… She was definitely not soft on the criminals. She was tough. She was assertive. But she was also fair to the people she dealt with in the streets."

But Rubio and the head of the 24,000-member Florida State Fraternal Order of Police, which on Friday endorsed Rubio at an event in Orlando, took aim at Demings for her 2020 comment regarding a proposal — which a year later was defeated — to defund and transform the Minneapolis, Minnesota, police department in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer. And they also criticized Demings for her past support for overhauling qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that protects police officers against lawsuits over what they do on the beat, but that critics charge shields law enforcement from accountability. 

"Val Demings called it thoughtful. It was probably one of the most irresponsible and quite frankly political expedient statements from someone who served in law enforcement," charged Steve Zona, the president of the Florida State Fraternal Order of Police, which has a history of backing GOP officials and candidates.

Pointing to Demings' support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021, which included provisions that would strip police of qualified immunity and which passed the House by party lines but died in the Senate, Zona claimed that the congresswoman "voted to strip law enforcement of qualified immunity. This would an unmitigated disaster if it happened…. Val Demings abandoned law enforcement when we needed her the most."

Rubio, who touted that "we’ve basically been endorsed by every law enforcement group in the state," was questioned about Demings’ push back against defunding the police in her new commercial. 

The Demings campaign has not directly discussed the congresswoman’s support for the police reform bill that included the qualified immunity provision.

But they note that "Demings spent 27 years at the Orlando Police Department, including over three years as the department’s Chief of Police. She put on a bulletproof vest and patrolled the streets for violent criminals while Marco Rubio was plotting his political career."

And they charged that "Rubio wants to make this race about anything other than what it is: a choice between a cop on the beat and a career politician who puts special interests and big money donors before what’s best for Florida."

Although Demings has topped Rubio in fundraising, both candidates have hauled in plenty of campaign cash, and their Senate showdown may end up being one of the most expensive this cycle.

But Democrats face historical headwinds and a difficult political climate this cycle as they try to defend the House and Senate majorities. And Florida, once the top general election battleground state, has leaned red of late. The top nonpartisan political handicappers rate the Florida Senate race as lean Republican.