In one of the most expensive House races this cycle, Democratic newcomer Patrick Murphy narrowly defeated tea party favorite Rep. Allen West to represent Florida’s newly drawn 18th District. Murphy successfully promoted himself as the anti-West candidate, and his campaign got financial support from his family’s construction business. The Democratic establishment also made knocking off the controversial Republican a high priority.
Murphy was born in Miami but grew up in the Florida Keys. He is the youngest son of Tom Murphy, the founder of Florida-based Coastal Construction Group. The family relocated to Westin when Murphy was 12, but he recalls moving constantly to follow the construction business. The industry has been a part of his family history for five generations, tracing its origins to Ireland, where an ancestor was a shipbuilder.
During his high school years, Murphy was class president and captain of the football and baseball teams. He also began working for the family business as a laborer, digging holes. A series of injuries made him reconsider his dream of playing sports in college. “I realized my body is not cut out for this,” Murphy said in an interview.
He received an academic scholarship to attend the University of Miami and Murphy studied business administration in college while continuing to work for Coastal Construction. Murphy says he never felt pressured to join the family business after graduation. “My dad said from early on, ‘Do what makes you happy.… If you want to join the family business, we’d love to have you,’” he recalled.
After earning his degree and becoming a certified public accountant, Murphy eventually worked as an auditor with consulting firm Deloitte & Touche. In 2010, he returned to Coastal Construction. The BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana and Florida took place about this time, inspiring Murphy to form Coastal Environmental Services, which allowed the company to branch out into disaster relief and cleanup. As the affiliate’s vice president, Murphy traveled to affected areas and promoted a unique line of oil-skimming boats used to clean the water through mechanical means.
Murphy was originally a Republican, but grew disillusioned with the party over the direction of the Iraq War. Though he started voting Democratic earlier, Murphy officially switched his party affiliation in January 2011. Two months later, he announced his bid to represent the Democratic-leaning 22nd District against the outspoken West.
However, in early 2012, West announced he would switch to the more GOP-friendly and marginal 18th District, and Murphy decided to challenge him there. “There is no safe district he can run to,” Murphy wrote in a press release. He secured the Democratic nomination easily with 80 percent of the vote. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Murphy to its “Red to Blue” program and spent heavily in the Palm Beach media market. Still, West trounced him in the money race, raising $17 million to Murphy’s $3.7 million by mid-October.
A large part of Murphy’s success was selling himself as the West alternative. In addition to past sensationalist comments, West received national notoriety when he said a large number of U.S. House members are Communists. West ran tough ads spotlighting Murphy’s arrest in his freshman year in college for disorderly intoxication and possessing a fake driver’s license. The charges were subsequently dismissed, and Murphy withstood the attacks.