Marco Rubio has made only a handful of official visits to Tampa Bay in the 5 1/2 years he’s been Florida’s junior senator.
Most of those stops were at the heavily secured MacDill Air Force Base, where the vast majority of the region’s 2.7 million people couldn’t visit without special clearance.
Only twice since 2011 — and not once since 2013 — has Rubio made a public appearance that wasn’t a politically staged event or at MacDill.
Rubio’s scarcity in Tampa Bay has become part of an attack line for Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff, his Republican opponent in this year’s Senate race.
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“I would say the people on the West Coast haven’t seen their senator enough,” Beruff said.
Beruff claims that Rubio’s infrequent stopovers prove he has been derelict in his duties and that he’s lost touch with those who elected him in 2010.
Beruff said Republicans in the Florida Panhandle and in Southwest Florida haven’t had access to Rubio, either.
“I’ve heard it plenty of times,” Beruff said Thursday before boarding a flight to Flagler County for a campaign event.
Rubio’s campaign scoffed at Beruff’s charge.
“These are silly attacks that ignore Marco’s record of fighting for Florida,” said Rubio’s spokeswoman, Olivia Perez-Cubas. “Marco is committed to continuing to serve the people of Florida, including his work to provide our veterans with the quality care they deserve.”
To further refute Beruff’s critique, Rubio’s Senate staff released a list of over a dozen events in Tampa Bay that Rubio has attended since the start of 2011.
They include at least seven visits to MacDill.
On the list are political events including campaign stops when he was running for president, attending the Republican National Convention in 2012 in Tampa and attending Republican Party fundraising dinners in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties during his first two years in office. Also included is an event with the Lakeland Republican Women’s Club in 2013.
Yet the only non-political events not at MacDill was a tour of a Temple Terrace private school called Florida College Academy in 2013 and a meeting with the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce in 2011.
“Senator Rubio and our office have been engaged in issues affecting the Tampa Bay area, and the entire state of Florida since he was sworn into office in 2011,” said Kristen Morrell, a spokeswoman for Rubio’s Senate office. “Aside from fighting for residents on a policy level in Congress on issues such as limiting flood insurance increases, Senator Rubio has visited the region numerous times throughout his term.”
Beruff said reading about issues or learning about them from a briefing isn’t the same as being on the road and meeting with the people.
“The whole point of the process is being in touch with the pulse of the people,” Beruff said. “It’s different when you hear what people are dealing with first hand.”
Over the last two weeks, Beruff’s campaign has stressed his plan to visit all 67 Florida counties once in office. It’s also mocked Rubio as “No Show Marco” in press releases. Beruff slammed Rubio last week for not being more present and on the ground helping deal with water pollution problems related to the Indian River Lagoon in 2013. And before that he highlighted Rubio absenteeism in the Senate, where he missed 73 of 105 votes while running for president.
But Morrell said Rubio has been attentive, even if he’s not physically on the ground. She said he’s spoken out about problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs, regulations at the Food and Drug Administration that are hurting cigar makers in Tampa, and in support of keeping the hurricane hunters aerial fleet based at MacDill, Morrell said.
Beruff said it is not just Tampa Bay where Rubio sightings are rare. Besides private fundraisers and campaign stops promoting his campaign and Gov. Rick Scott’s, Rubio has made no other official visits to Sarasota since winning the Senate seat.
In Panama City, Beruff supporter William G. Harrison Jr. said Rubio’s lack of visits to that Panhandle region likely was part of the reason why he did so poorly against Republican Donald Trump. In Bay County and a dozen other counties in North Florida, Rubio finished third in the presidential primary behind both Trump and Ted Cruz.
“The emotional connection is not there,” Harrison said during a Beruff campaign event last month. “They don’t know him up here.”