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For Florida Democrats, Alan Grayson is a problem they can’t ignore

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) wears a tie adorned with play money. (Jay Mallin/Bloomberg)

His far-left brand is out of place with Florida’s swingy politics. His penchant for controversy doesn’t go over well with many of Florida’s older Democratic voters. And the establishment wing of the Democratic Party wants him out, out, out — out of the Senate race, out of Congress and, preferably, out of Florida politics altogether.

But despite (or perhaps because of) all that, Rep. Alan Grayson (D) is a figure in Florida politics — a perplexing, divisive figure, but a figure nonetheless, and one who may represent a younger, more liberal, anti-establishment wing of the Democratic Party that Florida Democrats can’t live without.

Or he might not. It’s equally possible Grayson is yet another colorful Florida politician who says outlandish things, gets air time on MSNBC because of it, loses a big election and then fades into obscurity. It honestly can be hard to tell with this guy.

“The Grayson thing doesn’t seem like it has a cult following,” said Steve Schale, former director of the Obama campaign in Florida. “Every time we read something, it’s a negative piece on him.”

This much is true: If you’re a Florida Democrat — or any Democrat, really — you either love Alan Grayson or you hate him. There are people who would “crawl naked over hot coals” for Grayson (his words), and there are people at the highest levels of Democratic politics who are actively and publicly trying to undercut his Senate primary campaign against Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Fla.) for the seat being vacated by Sen. Marco Rubio (R).

To wit: Grayson’s spat with Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday:

Democrats in the room called that moment — one of their own challenging an invited guest, and the Senate minority leader no less — “embarrassing” for them and for Grayson. Grayson opponents in Florida say that moment epitomized what Grayson is all about: audacious, inconsiderate and just not willing to play by the rules.

But Grayson may not have much to lose by getting into it with Reid, and possibly some to gain. Reid has already urged Grayson to resign in light of an ethics investigation into Grayson's hedge fund, saying he has “no moral compass.” Reid is the most public Democratic figure to oppose Grayson, but a sizable chunk of Democratic star power is implicitly doing so by joining Team Murphy. President Obama has endorsed Murphy. So has every major union so far. On Thursday, Vice President Biden campaigned with Murphy in Orlando, which is part of Grayson’s district.

It's easy to see why the establishment doesn't Grayson. He has always had a reputation for being a little bombastic, and he often directs his ire at leading political figures or steps into an unbecoming controversy.

'My God, what's wrong with you?': Grayson's speech on 'bathroom law' (Video: C-SPAN)

First there was the “Die quickly" comment, in which he said that was basically the GOP's health-care plan for sick Americans. Then came allegations published in the New York Times and Tampa Bay Times that the wealthy hedge fund manager was essentially trading off his power as a congressman. Bloomberg recently reported his family profited from slave labor in Africa. He’s under a congressional ethics investigation, which in March released a 1,000-page report finding he probably broke the law by using his office to run said hedge fund, which had a presence in the Cayman Islands.

Through it all, Grayson continued to say some pretty eyebrow-raising things — and get a lot of press for it. (Calling a lobbyist a “K street whore” was among the most memorable. He later apologized for that one.)

The 8 most amazing sentences every uttered by Alan Grayson

“In Florida, he’s known as kind of a bullying, blustering guy who likes to shout at people,” said state Rep. Kevin Rader, a Murphy supporter. “He’s like a Democratic version of [former Florida Republican congressman] Allen West — a my-way-or-the-highway guy who doesn’t live up to the values he preaches.”

But read another way, Grayson is a guy who has walked through fire and managed to survive to serve in Congress (off and on) for eight years. Now he’s running for Senate in what could be a close race. That takes some skill, and it also suggests he has some genuine and perhaps substantial appeal in the state.

If Grayson’s got appeal, it’s most likely of the maverick, stick-it-to-the-establishment kind. And in this, the year of the outsider, that may be very hard for the Democratic Party to ignore, say his supporters.

"He's an authentic progressive," said Mike Fox, president of the St. Petersburg Democratic Club. "He's always stood for the poor and the middle class."

Before coming to Washington, Grayson earned the hearts of liberals by being an outspoken critic of the Iraq War. In Congress, he's unabashedly come to the aide of his constituents: He sought a new hurricane center for Orlando. He championed the case of a Florida teen killed after he was ejected from a state fair, and he worked with Osceola County to help pass one of the toughest wage theft laws in the state. In 2013, Slate argued Grayson was the most effective member of the House thanks to his ability to find common ground with libertarian-leaning Republicans. Most recently, he made headlines on the left by saying the U.S. should get out of Syria and focus on problems at home.

Grayson embraces his brash nature; it's part of who he is, he says. "There is no reason a Democrat has to be a weakling," he told Orlando Magazine in 2010.

That's exactly what some people like about him. “He’s been confrontational,” said Pat Schroeder, a former Democratic congresswoman from Colorado who now lives in Grayson’s Orlando-area district and supports him. “That upsets some of the powers that be here, because they are used to everybody taking a very low profile and not being much of a presence.”

Florida’s demographics may shifting toward an establishment flame-thrower like Grayson. The central part of the state — where Grayson hails from — is getting younger and more liberal, said Florida political analyst Susan MacManus. Think Bernie Sanders supporters. Its growth is threatening to challenge the southeastern Democratic stronghold of Florida, where leaders like Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, come from. Think Hillary Clinton supporters.

But is Grayson truly a movement candidate like his supporters say? His progressive following, to the extent there is one, has yet to produce evidence it’s got traction. Grayson has only got $430,000 in the bank, compared with Murphy’s $5.6 million — though Grayson can boost his bank account with one check; he’s worth $31 million and has spent as much as $3 million of his own money on elections so far.

Shortly after Grayson entered the Senate race, early polls showed him and Murphy tied. But a Real Clear Politics average of recent polls show Murphy up by double digits. A new Quinnipiac Poll shows Murphy beating several of the top Republican contenders while Grayson’s general election match-ups are closer. He’s still under an ethics investigation about that hedge fund (Grayson denies wrongdoing). Oh, and Sanders, who Grayson supports and who some compare him to, lost Florida’s primary by 30 points.

But national Democrats clearly still see Grayson as a problem worth dealing with. Florida is not a state where political factions can survive apart. The last two governors’ races and the 2012 presidential race were all decided by one point, MacManus pointed out. Democrats may not be able to afford to alienate Grayson and his supporters, no matter how much they may want to.

“You can't lose a key element in your base and win in a 1 percent state,” she said.

The summer might shed more light on Grayson’s appeal. Florida’s Senate primary isn’t until Aug. 30, one of the last primaries in the nation. It’s safe to say most voters aren’t yet paying attention to the Senate race or all the controversies Grayson has stirred up lately.

The question haunting Democrats is this: When they do start to tune in, will the party’s liberal wing like what they see in Grayson? Or is there such a thing as a politician taking it too far, even in the year of the outsider?

This post has been updated to more accurately reflect the recent polling in Florida's Democratic Senate primary. Murphy leads by double digits in an average of the latest polls, but not in all of the latest polls.