Florida 2016

October 24, 2016
Senator Wilkinson Call

Wilkinson Call was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat from Florida, serving from 1879 to 1897. 

Credit: U.S. Senate Historical Office

2016 Florida Senate Race: Past and Present Party Factionalism in Florida Politics


Party infighting and factionalism has existed in Florida politics for well over a century. The election of U.S. Senator Wilkinson Call in 1891, during the period when U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures, is a prime example of how party factionalism was expressed in the age of indirect elections. Thus far in the 2016 Florida Senate election, it seems that this long political legacy of factionalism and partisan conflict has persisted. Both the Democratic Primary and the general election have been characterized by personal attacks and factionalism.

Comparing the 2016 election to the 1891 election highlights the differences between what it takes to win a U.S. Senate election in the age of indirect elections versus direct elections. Under the indirect system of elections, each chamber of the state legislature met separately at the beginning of their legislative session to vote for senator; a candidate who received a majority in each chamber was declared the winner. If no candidate received a majority, the two chambers would meet jointly and vote until a winner was chosen or they adjourned for the year. Under direct Senate elections, which came about after the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, voters cast their votes directly for U.S. Senators.

In this essay, Cory Manento and I compare these two Florida Senate elections, 125 years apart to illustrate how the existence of intraparty conflict in the state has persisted over time. With Florida’s Senate race receiving significant national attention this year, the 1891 Senate election serves as a reminder that the vitriolic 2016 election is not a historical anomaly.

Marco Rubio – Roundabout Party Pathways in Seeking Reelection

When U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced in 2015 his intention to forego running for another Senate term in order to run for president, several qualified Republicans stepped in to try to ensure that Rubio’s Senate seat remained in Republican hands. But as the votes began pouring in as states held presidential primaries, Rubio piled up several third, fourth, and fifth place finishes in the crowded field of Republican candidates. When Rubio lost his home state to eventual-nominee Donald Trump in March, he decided to drop out of the presidential race. After several weeks of promising that he would not attempt to run for reelection to the Senate, Rubio announced on June 22 that he had “changed his mind,” citing the need for a Senate “full of people willing to act as a check and balance on the excesses of the next president.”[1] Republican Party leaders were able to simultaneously convince Rubio that he was the Republican Party’s best shot at winning the election and convince Florida Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Representatives David Jolly, Ron DeSantis, all qualified candidates, to drop out of the Republican primary and clear the way for Rubio to be the party nominee.[2] Rubio went on to win the Republican primary by 53.5 percentage points. In the general election, Rubio will face Congressman Patrick Murphy (D-FL), who won a contentious primary against Congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL).  

Incumbent Republican Senator Marco Rubio is an ambitious politician who quickly gained traction in Florida politics. A lifelong resident of the Miami metropolitan area, Rubio graduated from the University of Miami Law School in 1996. After working as an organizer on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign later that year, Rubio parlayed his newfound political connections into a seat on the West Miami City Commission in 1998.[3] Florida’s then-Governor-Elect Jeb Bush called to congratulate Rubio on his victory; an indication of Rubio’s rising political stardom.

Rubio left the City Commission less than halfway into his four-year term in order to run for an open seat in the Florida House of Representatives in 1999. Running in a safe Republican district, Rubio cast himself as a political moderate in the Republican primary – he emphasized issues such as early childhood education, lack of affordable housing for the elderly, and community crime – and won a narrow victory before going on to easily win the special election.[4]

In part because of constitutional term limits imposed on Florida state legislators and in part due to Rubio’s ambition and political skill, Rubio quickly climbed the ranks of Republican leadership in the Florida House. He was appointed to be one of two Majority Whips in 2000, and he rose to become House Majority Leader in 2002 at just 31 years old.[5] Rubio spent his time in Republican leadership forging alliances that would later play a role in furthering his political career. After a few years of politicking and establishing himself as a limited-government conservative, Rubio had enough support from his colleagues to be elected Speaker of the House when Allan Bense resigned in 2005. Marco Rubio went from law school student to Speaker of the Florida House in less than ten years.

In an interesting political move, Rubio essentially crowd-sourced his legislative agenda as Speaker. He launched a series of “idea raisers” across Florida that challenged citizens and legislators to articulate solutions to problems facing Florida, and it culminated in a printed text called 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future.[6] The 100 ideas literally became Rubio’s legislative platform, and he worked to turn the ideas into law. Democrats complained that the ideas were too conservative and that Republicans focused on them at the expense of other legislative proposals.[7] Perhaps the most notable political quarrel during Rubio’s speakership came when he proposed eliminating property taxes in favor of a 2.5 cent sales tax increase in 2007. Senate Republicans opposed the plan because they viewed it as a net tax increase, while Democrats viewed it as a shift in tax burden from the wealthy to the poor. The bill passed the House but was voted down in the Senate. Rubio left the state legislature in 2008.

In 2009, Rubio announced that he would run for the open U.S. Senate seat left by retiring Republican Senator Mel Martinez. His main Republican primary opponent was former Florida Governor Charlie Crist. Crist came under fire from conservative Republicans for being “too liberal,” and he was dubbed a “Republican in name only (RINO)” when he supported the Obama Administration’s economic stimulus package in 2009.[8] Marco Rubio became an attractive option for conservative Tea Party voters in the Republican primary because of his conservative credentials from his Florida House tenure. When it became clear that Crist would not be competitive with Rubio in the primary, he announced that he would instead run in the general election as an Independent. With Crist off the ballot, Rubio easily won the Republican nomination. In the general election, Rubio easily defeated Crist and Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek, with Rubio obtaining 49 percent of the vote and Crist and Meek receiving 30 and 20 percent, respectively.[9]

Senator Rubio sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, the Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Committee, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee.[10] He is also the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues. As one might expect when observing his committee assignments, Rubio primarily sponsors bills in the area of international affairs.[11] During his first term, Rubio has missed 14.5 percent of roll call votes, which is far worse than the median of 1.7 percent among the lifetime records of current senators.[12] This is partly the result of his focus on launching and maintaining his presidential campaign after initially announcing that he would not seek reelection. But he had also missed relatively high percentages of votes in 2011 and 2012 when he was not up for election in any capacity. His missed votes actually became a target for his opponents during the Republican presidential primary in 2016.

Rubio’s Democratic opponent is the U.S. Representative from Florida’s 18th Congressional district, Patrick Murphy. Prior to entering politics in 2012, Murphy was a businessman: he created a subsidiary to his family’s business and worked as a contractor cleaning up the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill.[13] In 2012 Murphy challenged the controversial freshman Tea Party Republican Congressman Allen West, who is perhaps best known for saying that 81 House Democrats are “communists.” Murphy defeated West by 0.8 percentage points in the most expensive U.S. House race of 2012, with over $29 million spent by the candidates and outside groups.[14] Murphy won reelection in 2014 with over 60 percent of the vote.

After demonstrating his ability to be a prolific fundraiser and win elections in a competitive district, Murphy became a candidate that Democratic Party leaders desired to challenge Rubio. Members of the Democratic Party establishment, including President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, formally endorsed Murphy early on in the 2016 election cycle.[15]

However, another Florida Congressman, Alan Grayson, jumped into the fold and promised a competitive Democratic Senate primary. Grayson is a progressive Democratic Congressman from Florida’s 9th district who endorsed Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary. Grayson clearly was trying to attack Murphy from the left, as Murphy is considered a centrist Democrat. Indeed, in an analysis of bill sponsorship, Murphy ranks in the 15th percentile for progressivism among House Democrats, while Grayson ranks in the 70th percentile.[16]

In some ways, the Senate Democratic primary in Florida mirrored the Democratic presidential primary. Much like Hillary Clinton, Patrick Murphy is moderate; he is the Democratic establishment favorite; and he is capable of raising significant amounts of money for his campaign. Alan Grayson is a progressive candidate who centered his campaign on building a grassroots coalition, much like Bernie Sanders.

But in other significant ways, the Florida primary was not like the presidential primary. While the Democratic presidential primary featured ongoing sincere policy debates between Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton, the Florida Senate Democratic primary was characterized by name-calling and scandal. For example, Grayson came under fire in February for having hedge funds in the Cayman Islands, a known tax haven. This revelation prompted Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to urge Grayson to drop out of the race.[17] Grayson responded by suggesting that Senator Reid prefers “corrupt establishment errand boy Patrick Murphy.”[18] Early polls had actually suggested a relatively close race, with Murphy ahead by about 8 percentage points, but another scandal would quickly come to haunt Grayson.[19] In July, Politico reported that Alan Grayson’s ex-wife had claimed several instances of domestic abuse over the course of two decades.[20] Murphy went on to win the primary with 58.9 percent of the vote to Grayson’s 17.7 percent.

The general election thus far has featured a mixture of policy proposals and personal attacks from both candidates. Senator Rubio has proposed eliminating Common Core educational standards in order to “empower parents, local communities, and individual states.”[21] He has also highlighted his Senate experience in international affairs and is an advocate for a more aggressive approach to defeat ISIS. Representative Murphy has called for comprehensive immigration reform and has touted his business experience and Congressional record to support his assertion that he is best positioned to “grow the middle class.”[22] Rubio has attacked Murphy’s record, insinuating that Murphy has lied about his business background and calling Murphy one of the “least effective members of Congress.”[23] For his part, Murphy has repeatedly attacked Rubio for standing by his endorsement of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump despite Trump’s many recent controversies.

It is unclear that Murphy’s attempts to associate Rubio with Trump are, to this point, having the same effect that they are apparently having in other U.S. Senate races. Rubio currently holds a 4.9 percentage point lead over Murphy in an average of recent polls, despite Trump trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race by an average of 3.2 percentage points.[24] Perennially considered a “swing” state in presidential elections, Florida is likely to produce a close Senate race this year as well. Factors such as incumbency advantage, candidate quality, and campaign resources can make the critical difference in the election.  To date, Marco Rubio has raised $14.1 million and spent $6.3 million to defend his Senate seat, while Patrick Murphy has raised $11.2 million and spent $7.8 million.[25]

Wilkinson Call – Century Old Incumbency Advantage 

While Patrick Murphy was able to win the Democratic nomination because of his opponent’s personal undoing, U.S. Senator Wilkinson Call was able to win the 1891 Senate election because of the inability of the opposing faction in the Democratic Party to coalesce around a single candidate. Democratic Party factionalism was apparent in both the 2016 primary and the 1891 election. 2016 pitted a moderate Democrat against a Democrat that represents a much more liberal wing of the party. In 1891, the factions within the party centered on support for the incumbent senator himself.  In both instances, failures by what might be considered the “outsider” factions allowed the establishment candidates to claim victory. Now Murphy must focus on winning the support of voters in the general election against a relatively popular incumbent.

A longtime Jacksonville attorney and a Civil War veteran, Wilkinson Call first entered politics in 1865 when he was elected to the U.S. Senate.[26] However, a hostile postwar U.S. Senate arbitrarily chose to deny Call his seat.[27] Ten years later, Call was defeated in a second bid to become a U.S. Senator. Armed with determination and a slim Democratic majority in the Florida state legislature in 1879, Call finally managed to eke out a victory on the seventeenth ballot in his third attempt at winning a seat.[28]

Call was reelected with little opposition in 1885. But an anti-Call faction within the Democratic Party, headed by incumbent governor Francis Fleming, began to grow in the state legislature. Conflict between Call supporters and the anti-Call faction came to a head in the 1891 Senate election. At that time Democrats dominated Florida’s legislature, controlling all 76 state house seats and 31 of 32 state senate seats.[29] So whichever faction of the Democratic Party was able to secure more votes was able to effectively decide the election without having to worry about a Republican candidate.

While Call commanded a solid portion of votes in the party, anti-Call forces were deeply divided. The extensive party infighting in the election drew the repeated attention of the national press. An April 1891 forecast in the New York Times noted that “the members of the opposition to Call have given a scattered support to at least a half-dozen aspirants.”[30] The main challenger to Call turned out to be J.G. Speer, the only other candidate to receive enough votes in the party caucus to deny Call the nomination. Even though Call had a majority of votes, he was unable to quickly secure the nomination because of the requirement for achieving a two-thirds vote in the party caucus. And in early balloting, legislators had spread their votes among many candidates in the joint session in order to prevent a candidate who did not have the caucus endorsement from winning.[31] But it became clear that there was no single anti-Call leader popular enough to attract widespread support or organize support around a single opposition candidate.

Call was eventually reelected after 30 joint ballots, but only when anti-Call members of the legislature refused to vote, which left Call to receive almost all the votes from the remaining legislators who comprised a bare majority in joint session.[32] After the election, Governor Fleming refused to certify the election and appointed someone else to serve in the Senate in his place. However, the U.S. Senate rejected Fleming’s substitute appointment and voted to seat Call. Senator Call served one more full term, until he was defeated in 1897 by Stephen Mallory. Call died in 1910 at the age of 76. 

Florida politics was well-known for its personality-driven factionalism in the late 19th century.[33] But in the age of direct elections, overcoming party factionalism is not sufficient to be elected to the Senate. In both cases, Wilkinson Call and Marco Rubio used their incumbency advantage to push out party challengers and in the case of Rubio, withstand major divisions within his party at both the state and national levels. If Rubio wins his reelection campaign, as Call ultimately did in 1891, it will be due to the power of incumbency counteracting the weaknesses that arise when majority parties are divided. 


[1] Manu Raju, Tom LoBianco, and Kevin Liptak, “Marco Rubio: ‘I changed my mind,’ will Run for Re-Election,” CNN, June 22, 2016. Accessed on September 5, 2016 at http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/22/politics/marco-rubio-reverses-and-will-run-for-senate-seat/.

[2] Ballotpedia, “United States Senate Election in Florida, 2016.” Accessed on September 5, 2016 at https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_Senate_election_in_Florida,_2016.

[3] Alex Leary, “Marco Rubio’s Meteoric Rise in Florida Politics,” Tampa Bay Times, October 9, 2010. Accessed on September 4, 2016 at http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/elections/marco-rubios-meteoric-rise-in-florida-politics/1127114.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Michael Mishak, “What Kind of Leader is Marco Rubio? An Investigation,” National Journal, November 5, 2015. Accessed on September 4, 2016 at https://www.nationaljournal.com/s/24397/what-kind-leader-is-marco-rubio-investigation.

[6] Alex Leary, “Marco Rubio’s Meteoric Rise in Florida Politics,” Tampa Bay Times, October 9, 2010. Accessed on September 4, 2016 at http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/elections/marco-rubios-meteoric-rise-in-florida-politics/1127114.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mark Leibovich, “The First Senator from the Tea Party?” The New York Times, January 6, 2010. Accessed on September 4, 2016 at http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/10/magazine/10florida-t.html?_r=0.

[9] Ballotpedia, “U.S. Senate, Florida General Election, 2010.” Accessed on September 4, 2016 at https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_Senate_election_in_Florida,_2016#2010.

[10] Govtrack, “Sen. Marco Rubio.” Accessed on September 4, 2016 at https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/marco_rubio/412491.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Michael Mayo, “Allen West in Political Dogfight Against Newcomer Patrick Murphy,” Florida Sun-Sentinel, October 26, 2012. Accessed on September 5, 2016 at http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2012-10-26/news/fl-west-congress-mayocol-b102812-20121026_1_allen-west-democrat-ron-klein-democrat-lois-frankel.

[14] Center for Responsive Politics, “Most Expensive Races: 2012 Election Cycle.” Accessed on September 5, 2016 at https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/topraces.php?cycle=2012&display=currcands.

[15] Ballotpedia, “United States Senate Election in Florida, 2016.” Accessed on September 5, 2016 at https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_Senate_election_in_Florida,_2016.

[16] Govtrack, “2015 Report Card: Patrick Murphy.” Accessed on September 5, 2016 at https://www.govtrack.us/congress/members/patrick_murphy/412527/report-card/2015.

[17] Ballotpedia, “United States Senate Election in Florida, 2016.” Accessed on September 5, 2016 at https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_Senate_election_in_Florida,_2016.

[18] Ibid.

[19] RealClearPolitics, “Polls: Florida Senate – Democrats.” Accessed on September 6, 2016 at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/senate/fl/florida_senate_democratic_primary-5378.html.

[20] John Bresnahan, Mark Caputo, and Jake Sherman, “Grayson’s Ex-wife Claimed Domestic Abuse over Two Decades,” Politico, July 26, 2016. Accessed on September 6, 2016 at http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/alan-grayson-wife-florida-226090#ixzz4IjpW02v4.

[21] Marco Rubio – Issues. Accessed on October 14, 2016 at https://marcorubio.com/issues/.

[22] Patrick Murphy – Vision. Accessed on October 14, 2016 at https://www.murphyforflorida.com/vision/.

[23] Marco Rubio – “Patrick Murphy Doesn’t Work.” Accessed on October 14, 2016 at https://marcorubio.com/patrick-murphy-doesnt-work/.

[24] RealClearPolitics – Florida Polls. Accessed on October 14, 2016 at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/fl/florida_trump_vs_clinton-5635.html.

[25] Center for Responsive Politics, “Florida Senate Race: 2016 Summary Data.” Accessed on September 6, 2016 at http://www.opensecrets.org/races/summary.php?id=FLS2.

[26] Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, “Call, Wilkinson, (1834-1910).” Accessed on September 7, 2016 at http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=c000051.

[27] Albert Hubbard Roberts. 1934. “Wilkinson Call, Soldier and Senator. Part I.” The Florida Historical Society Quarterly, 12(3): 95-113.

[28] Albert Hubbard Roberts. 1934. “Wilkinson Call, Soldier and Senator. Part II.” The Florida Historical Society Quarterly, 12(4): 179-197.

[29] Wendy J. Schiller and Charles Stewart III, Electing the Senate: Indirect Democracy before the Seventeenth Amendment.  (Princeton:  Princeton University Press 2015, 101.

[30] Ibid, 103.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid, 105. See https://repository.library.brown.edu/studio/item/bdr:402939/ for the actual joint ballots in the 1891 Florida Senate election.

[33] Schiller and Stewart, Electing the Senate: Indirect Democracy before the Seventeenth Amendment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 105.