Dan Webster, winning without going negative, resumes quiet effort to build bipartisanship
Campaign staff in Orlando and national Republican strategists in Washington were exasperated.
Day after day, Rep. Dan Webster was getting bludgeoned on TV, radio and in the mail with negative ads from Democratic opponent Val Demings and her supporters, including a heart-stopping $2.3 million from NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Webster, 63, refused strenuous cries to hit back. And he won.
His story is increasingly rare, a politician who refused to use, as he calls it, "the Washington playbook" and came out ahead. "I'd rather lose and have a clear conscience," the Orlando Republican said in a recent interview on Capitol Hill. "The reason the culture is the way it is in Washington is due in part to the way you get there. If the end is justified, it's justified that you can use any means to make that happen. Once you get sworn in, you begin to focus on one thing, How do I stay?"
Now he is trying to continue to change the partisan climate. With little notice, Webster has for the past two years joined forces with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz to host bipartisan dinners once a month. They are thinking of moving from the Monocle restaurant to accommodate a bigger crowd. Webster also started a bipartisan breakfast group that has come up with legislative proposals, including creating tax-free home ownership savings accounts akin to health savings accounts.
Webster, who served 28 years in the Florida Legislature before displacing firebrand Rep. Alan Grayson in 2010, enjoyed a more Republican leaning district and a conservative group unconnected with his campaign spent more than $1 million blasting Demings. But Demings, a former Orlando police chief, was a tough candidate and drew much more outside spending. Ads misleadingly attacked Webster for being close to lobbyists, reaching back to his days in the state house.
Then came Bloomberg's money in the final stretch, an unexpected insurgency that deeply worried the campaign.
All along, Webster allies wanted him to sharply question Demings positions and there was talk of mining her record as police chief for dirt, according to people familiar with the campaign. Webster felt the pressure. "There are people that feel for you. They want you to respond. They feel like this is all wrong, go out there and take them on."
He didn't attack but took measures to blunt Deming's advances. Grassroots outreach was tripled in the last week of the campaign and Webster tucked a personal note into fliers left at doors.
He beat Demings by nearly 3.5 percentage points. Democrats feel that's not enough and have already begun to target the seat.
“Voters can now see if Congressman Dan Webster stands with the middle class in Florida or millionaires and Republicans in Washington. Congressman Webster can force a vote on middle class tax cuts if he is willing to stand against Grover Norquist and Speaker Boehner’s plan that takes us over the fiscal cliff and leaves the middle class with a lump of coal,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said this week.
As the new congress prepares, Webster will be joined by Grayson, who returns in a different district. "I'm happy to serve with him," Webster said. "Politics is in running. Serving, you get elected just like everybody else."