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Senate Republicans may have 99 problems, but it looks like Florida ain’t one

It was supposed to be one of the GOP's biggest headaches this November. Now, it looks like even Democrats may be acknowledging Senate Republicans are currently heading for a win in Florida.

As the Miami Herald's Kristen Clark reported, Senate Democrats' campaign arm is cutting off its plans to run ads for Democratic Senate nominee Patrick Murphy (D) in the final weeks of the campaign. They'd been quietly pulling ad reservations for a few weeks now, and earlier this month, a Democratic super PAC canceled $6 million worth of TV time for Murphy.

In politics, money is confidence. And the fact that Democrats in Washington are pulling their ad money from Florida and giving it to other states suggests that they're no longer confident they can win the seat at a price they're willing to pay. Florida is one of the most expensive states to run a Senate campaign in; instead of spending $25 million on an unsure outcome, Democrats can use it in states like New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Missouri.

They also may be manifesting their own reality. Murphy is increasingly on his own to try to unseat one of Senate Republicans' most well-known, well-funded and talented candidates this election cycle, Sen. Marco Rubio. The race is tight though it currently leans Republican. A recent Quinnipiac University poll had the race within the margin-of-error, and the RealClearPolitics average shows Rubio up by 4 points.

Murphy's not out of the race yet. But just because Florida is leaning Republican doesn't mean the whole Senate map is. Democrats still have a slight edge to take back the Senate. They only need to net four seats to take back the majority (or five if GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump wins and Mike Pence, as vice president, is the tie breaker). They've got a realistic shot in seven.

But in a cycle where Senate Republicans are playing defense in red-leaning states (Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina), the potential to put Florida to bed is a huge relief for them.

It wasn't supposed to be this way for Democrats.

Before he ran for president, Rubio insisted that if things didn't work out, he wouldn't run for his old Senate seat. That meant an enticing open seat in a swing state in a presidential year. The only missing ingredient for Democrats to declare victory was a talented candidate. They thought they had that in Murphy (although he had to get through a contentious primary first). Adding to Senate Democrats' optimism, a field of five or so lackluster Republican candidates scrambled to be Rubio's successor; none really stood out.

Senate Republicans were worried about getting mired in a $25 million battle defending a seat they weren't guaranteed to win. So Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and team did something drastic: Convince Rubio to go back on his word and get him to run for his seat again.

Senate Republicans could take a step back from Florida, let Rubio do his thing, and focus their time and energy elsewhere. (As we've neared Election Day, there's been no shortage of races for them to fret over.)

Meet the new Senate battleground states

Looks like their plan worked. Rubio started raising millions of dollars, easily won his primary, has led in almost every public poll since July and has been like Teflon as Murphy lobs attacks at him. All the while, Rubio is having his cake and eating it too, only sorta kinda committing to serving out the full six-year term. (For those counting, 2020 is in four years.)

Then we get to Monday, where Rubio gave a strong performance amid Murphy's equally strong attacks. (Side note: Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for Senate Democrats' campaign arm, said their decision to pull ad reservations from Florida came before the debate. “Patrick did incredibly well,” she told the Miami Herald.)

Really, Florida got knocked off Senate Democrats' path to victory the moment Rubio decided to run for his Senate seat. And this is the second flashy, expensive Senate race this cycle that Democrats have had to forgo playing in. In September, they started pulling ad reservations for former Ohio governor Ted Strickland as Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) took a commanding lead. As The Fix's Chris Cillizza pointed out at the time, Ohio and Florida are two very expensive states that Republicans no longer have to dump money into. If Republicans keep the Senate, they can thank Portman and Rubio for it.

We emphasize the “if.” There are still plenty of other races Republicans do have to pour money into, as they play whack-a-mole with contests in red-leaning states. Trump is dragging in the polls and threatening to be a drag on them. And as I wrote Monday, they may be facing a TV money problem at exactly the wrong time.

So yes, Senate Republicans still have 99 problems — but Florida doesn't seem to be one of them.

This post has been updated to reflect Florida media coverage of Murphy's debate performance, which detailed Murphy on the offensive, and add in a new Quinnipiac University poll showing the race within 2 percentage points.