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The Buzz

From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

The Buzz introduces its House race rankings

The Republican Party needs 40 seats to take control in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the road runs through Florida.

It is in this context that the Buzz unveils its inaugural ranking of the six House seats in Florida most vulnerable to a party switch this fall. Our rankings, which appear in descending order of vulnerability, are based on interviews with a range of political practitioners and independent observers.

We consider the state's other 19 House seats to be safe for the party currently in power, though if any show signs of life, we'll add them to our rankings as we update them every month or so.

 
1. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach. Kosmas is a Democratic freshman who represents a slightly Republican-leaning district -- a situation that by itself would be enough to make her vulnerable in a year shaping up to be strong for the GOP. But Kosmas heightened her peril by first voting against her party's health care bill and later voting for it. And in a district that takes in portions of Orlando, Daytona Beach and the Space Coast, it hasn't helped that President Barack Obama is proposing a major restructuring of NASA's priorities that could result in thousands of job losses for her constituents. She'll first need to win a Democratic primary against former Winter Springs Mayor Paul Partyka. But for the general election, she benefits from a messy Republican primary field that features Winter Park Commissioner Karen Diebel, state Rep. Sandy Adams and Craig Miller, a deep-pocketed former CEO of Ruth's Chris Steak House.
 
2 (tie). Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello. Boyd, a conservative "Blue Dog" Democrat, is well-funded and has survived seven terms in a district not especially friendly to Democrats. In fact, in 2008, Republican John McCain beat Barack Obama by a whopping 9 points in the district, which includes Tallahassee as well as more rural territory in the mid Panhandle. But what was good enough in years past may not be good enough in the potential Republican wave year of 2010. First, Boyd must survive a competitive primary with state Sen. Al Lawson. Then he must draw supporters to the polls in a low-turnout midterm election. Boyd, even more than Kosmas, benefits from a weak Republican field. The nominal frontrunner is funeral-home owner Scott Southerland, who badly trails Boyd in the money race and who has minimal campaign experience. But there are indications he is doing well in trial heats against Boyd, whose position has been weakened by his vote for the Democratic health care plan after he initially voted against it. This is precisely the kind of seat that tipped from Democratic to Republican in 1994, so despite Boyd’s war chest and his experience navigating the district, he should be worried.
 
2 (tie). Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando. More than any other Florida incumbent, Grayson, an acid-tongued freshman Democrat who represents a district running from Ocala to Orlando, has drawn fierce national opposition. But his status as a target for national Republicans has also served to solidify his standing among his own party's liberal wing, meaning that both sides will be well girded (and well funded) for battle this fall. The good news for Republicans is that Grayson is a dream for those who assemble attack ads and who raise money from outraged partisans. But there's bad news for Republicans, too: The district leans slightly Democratic; Grayson is one of the House's richest members; and he's a tenacious competitor. No wonder, then, that some of the most promising GOP candidates took a pass on the race, leaving a Republican primary field that can best be described as unsettled. Most familiar to voters is a late entrant, former state House speaker and state Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, but Webster’s status as a long-serving Tallahassee politician might not be the best profile for an anti-incumbent year. Other contenders include state Rep. Kurt Kelly, traffic-signal businessman Bruce O'Donoghue, 2008 primary contender Todd Long and tea party activist Patricia Sullivan.

4. Open seat being vacated by Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow. Democratic and Republican operatives alike agree that this could be a sleeper race. The Lakeland-based district has been represented by Putnam for the past five terms, but he's giving up a spot on the House Republican leadership track to run for state agriculture commissioner. The district backed McCain in 2008, but only narrowly, and it has suffered levels of foreclosures and unemployment above the state average. So if a generalized thread of anti-incumbency emerges in this fall’s voting patterns -- rather than a push specifically against Democratic incumbents -- it could be felt in this district. The micro-level picture also suggests a wide-open race. The Republican frontrunner is former state Rep. Dennis Ross, while Democrats are counting on Polk County elections supervisor Lori Edwards. Both are experienced politicians who are at least somewhat familiar to voters in the district. If Edwards can kick her fundraising into higher gear -- admittedly a significant “if” -- several sources said she could take the seat, especially if Polk County Commissioner Randy Wilkinson, running as a tea party candidate, splits the Republican vote and lowers the threshold of victory for the Democratic nominee.

5. Open seat being vacated by Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami. In an unusual move, Mario Diaz-Balart is switching districts in 2010 to seek the seat being vacated by his retiring brother Lincoln. The seat that Mario is leaving behind -- which covers most of the southern tip of Florida, from the outskirts of Naples across the Everglades to inland portions of the Miami metro area -- is competitive between the parties, favoring McCain in 2008, but by only one percentage point. Its status as an open seat this year makes it something of an even fight, despite the GOP’s national momentum. The Democrats are likely to put up their 2008 nominee, Joe Garcia, who came within six points of knocking off the incumbent in 2008. The likeliest Republican is state Rep. David Rivera, who is considered close to Marco Rubio -- and whose political aspirations could benefit from those ties this year. While this race may well rise on our vulnerability list before Election Day, we're keeping it low on the list until the battle comes into clearer focus.

6. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. Klein, a second-term Democrat, represents portions of Florida's Atlantic coast, stretching from Jupiter down through Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale. It's historically competitive territory, long represented by Republican Clay Shaw, often despite tough Democratic challenges (including one by Klein, who ousted Shaw in 2006). Two years ago, Klein won a second term by a 10-point margin over Republican Allen West, an African-American former Army colonel with a war chest dwarfed by Klein's. West is back again, this time riding a wave of tea party anger that has brought him a national following -- and, unlike 2008, a national base for fundraising. In a normal year, the 22nd District would not be an obvious place for West's muscular conservatism to resonate, but this is not a normal year, and it’s possible that many seniors will express their frustration at the Democratic health care reform plan by casting a protest vote. But Klein should have enough money to hit West hard. For now, it's a race worth watching, but Klein remains the favorite.

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[Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 11:38am]

    

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