The Florida Senate race is about more than just a seat in Congress — it will determine if Marco Rubio has a future in politics.
The failed presidential candidate is still one of the Republican Party's biggest — and at 45, youngest — stars. Few GOP leaders are as charismatic or have the potential to bridge the party's rift with young, black and Latino voters.
Even fewer might be prepared to make a credible run for the White House in 2020 if, as polls indicate, the party loses the 2016 presidential race.
But none of Rubio's talent will matter if he loses on Nov. 8. He faces Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy— who, like Rubio, won his party's nomination for Senate on Tuesday. Two defeats in one year would leave the incumbent senator with few options for future office — and leave the GOP without a potential leader just six years after he burst onto the national stage.
"You have to recognize you can’t take one of your star players off the field without significant downstream consequences," said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist in Florida.
Rubio nearly cleared a five-man field when he dramatically entered the Florida Senate primary this summer. He changed his mind about running for re-election after his unsuccessful bid for the GOP presidential nomination.
For now, polls from the Sunshine State show Rubio with a small advantage over Murphy. A mid-August survey from Monmouth University found him leading by 5 points, 48 percent to 43 percent, in line with other recent polls.
To Republicans, a candidate who famously tussled with Donald Trump during the presidential primary is well-positioned to resist the Republican leader's harmful down-ballot effect, which has hindered GOP Senate candidates like Patrick J. Toomey in Pennsylvania and Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire.
Already, according to polls, the senator is earning more support than Trump, who trails Clinton in Florida in most surveys.
"Voters will have a clear choice between re-electing a senator with a strong record of fighting for them, or Patrick Murphy, who has proven untrustworthy and unaccomplished," said Olivia Perez-Cubas, Rubio spokeswoman.
But Democrats think they have a narrow but real path to defeating Rubio, in part because of his once and possibly future run for the presidency. They delighted earlier this week when, in an interview with CNN, he declined to commit to serving six years in office should he win re-election, saying that no politician could make such a promise.
During his victory speech Tuesday, Murphy mocked his refusal to take the six-year pledge.
“I have two words for him: I can. I commit to you right now that I will serve my full term and fight for Florida every day," he said.
Democrats also argue that Rubio is still tethered to Trump, especially given that he continues to support the New York billionaire's bid for the White House.
"Marco Rubio is willing to abandon his responsibility to Floridians and hand over our country’s national security to Donald Trump, as long as it advances his own political career," said Galia Slayen, a Murphy campaign spokeswoman. "In Rubio’s own words, Donald Trump is 'dangerous,' a 'con man,' and can’t be trusted with the country’s nuclear codes. Yet, he absurdly stands by and continues to support Trump as our next commander in chief."