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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Florida congressional vulnerability ratings: Our first take for 2012



True to its reputation as a hotbed of politics, Florida has turned into a key battleground in the fight to control the U.S. House of Representatives. Six Florida seats that help make up the Republican House majority in Washington are competitive to one degree or another this fall, while two newly created House seats – stemming from the expansion of Florida’s delegation due to population growth – are up for grabs as well.

Unlike in 2010 – when we last conducted these vulnerability rankings – all the seats on this list except for the newly created ones are held by the Republicans. This means Florida Republicans will be playing defense this cycle rather than offense, though it also means they start with the advantage of incumbency.

Several of the races on this list will be marquee contests not just in the Sunshine State but nationally as well: the return of defeated liberal firebrand Alan Grayson; a faceoff between political veterans Lois Frankel and Adam Hasner; the re-election campaign of outspoken conservative Allen West; plus bids by ethics-dogged incumbents Vern Buchanan and David Rivera.

Following a disastrous 2010 cycle, Florida Democrats can take heart in their candidate recruiting efforts. In all but a couple districts on this list, the Democrats found strong candidates. This doesn’t mean the Democrats will win every seat on this list, but it does mean that a party that had been thoroughly devastated just two years ago is getting some traction in building a farm team of candidates. If challengers like Val Demings and Jessica Ehrlich, don’t win this year, they could do so in the future.

As usual, we rate the states in descending order by the likelihood they will switch party control in November. The only exception -- due to a quirk in the redistricting process -- is the No. 1 seat, which is a newly drawn district that neither party currently controls. Read on for the full rankings.

1: Newly created seat (9th District). Former Rep. Alan Grayson (D) vs. Todd Long (R).

Grayson, the outspoken liberal who was unceremoniously dumped by voters in 2010 following a string of intemperate comments and campaign ads, is back, running in a newly created district in and around Orlando that leans more than a little Democratic. Already a fundraising powerhouse who fires up the Democratic base with his bare-knuckled attacks, Grayson caught some good fortune when attorney and conservative talk-show host Todd Long defeated Osceola County Commissioner John Quinones in the GOP primary. This was partially a case of Grayson making his own luck: He backed a primary ad blitz targeting Quinones, who most observers agree would have been a stronger general-election nominee. The district is almost two-thirds new to Grayson, but it has a 41 percent Hispanic voting age population (and growing), and it backed Barack Obama with 60 percent of the vote in 2008. Combined with Long’s victory -- he’s a Christian conservative with views to the right of the district and some acknowledged past problems with alcohol – the district’s demographics suggest that Grayson may be headed back to Washington in 2013.

2:  Republican-held seat being vacated by Rep. Allen West (22nd District). Lois Frankel (D) vs. Adam Hasner (R).

Tea party hero West has represented this district since his insurgent victory in 2010, but he’s now running instead for a newly drawn seat elsewhere, seeking more reliably conservative pastures. The 22nd District, which includes parts of Boca Raton and West Palm Beach, is filled with older voters and tilts Democratic, giving 57 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. The contest to succeed West has attracted two political figures with big footprints – Frankel, a former state House minority leader and West Palm Beach mayor, and Hasner, a former state House majority leader and ally of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio who made his own short-lived bid for the Senate earlier this year. Frankel is a longtime political operator with a reputation for sharp elbows, dating back to her election to the state House in 1986. Hasner, a Jewish Republican, is considered more personable but has voiced some views that may be to the right of the district, particularly during his U.S. Senate bid. However, Hasner did secure the endorsement of Palm Beach County’s Voters Coalition, which carries some weight in the district. The district’s demographics give Frankel a slight edge, but this one should be close through Election Day.

3: Newly created seat (18th District). Rep. Allen West (R) vs. Patrick Murphy (D).

West, a polarizing figure with a national profile and impressive fundraising appeal, left his old seat to run in a newly drawn district on the Treasure Coast. His new district, which is about three-quarters new territory for him, is more favorable than his old one, but still less than ideal for a hard-line conservative – it backed Obama by 51 percent in 2008. West will have more than enough money to compete in the relatively low-cost media market; his Democratic opponent, Murphy, is proving to be a strong fundraiser as well. Murphy, an accountant who hails from a major construction family, has run an ad targeting some of West’s more controversial comments; in the ad, children utter West’s words verbatim, such as calling Obama backers a "threat to the gene pool" and telling Democrats to "get the hell out of the United States.” In the ad, Murphy says, “Bullying and name-calling have no place on the playground, or in Congress.” The money-fueled contest should remain close to the end, though insiders wonder whether Murphy has the mettle to defeat a campaigner as powerful as West.

4: Republican seat held by Rep. David Rivera (26th District). Rivera vs. Joe Garcia (D).

Rivera, a confidant of Rubio during their state legislative days, has had a rough time in Congress since winning his heavily Cubanb South Florida seat in 2010. One investigation concluded without charges – a state probe into his finances, later ended due to a statute of limitations – but another one cropped up, with the FBI and Miami-Dade police looking into whether Rivera or his allies propped up an obscure Democratic primary challenger, complete with allegations of $100 bills stuffed into envelopes. (Rivera has denied the accusations.) But Rivera retains goodwill in the Cuban exile community, and this year his Democratic opponent is again Garcia, who lost by a wide margin to Rivera in 2010. This race could rise in our rankings if something dramatic happens between now and Election Day on the legal front.

5: Republican seat held by Rep. Vern Buchanan (16th Dstrict). Buchanan vs. Keith Fitzgerald (D).

Buchanan has repeatedly won this potentially competitive Sarasota-Bradenton seat despite a swirl of ethics controversies. He got a break when the House Ethics Committee ended its investigation of his personal financial disclosures without pursuing charges, but a continuing legal face-off with a former business partner has produced a steady stream of negative headlines and even coverage from CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The legal fight has threatened to force a contentious deposition by Buchanan just weeks before the election. Unlike the 2010 cycle, Buchanan has a strong Democratic challenger in political scientist and former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, who has proven to be a strong fundraiser, even topping Buchanan on occasion this cycle. And Fitzgerald will be running in a district slightly less Republican than it was before redistricting. One factor that could affect both candidates: The Tampa media market is saturated with other political ads this year, making it hard for this race to break through.

6: Republican seat held by Rep. Steve Southerland (2nd District). Southerland vs. Al Lawson (D).

Democrats have hopes of winning back this northern Florida seat, which was held for years by Blue Dog Democrat Allen Boyd until he was ousted by tea party favorite and political newcomer Southerland in 2010. Southerland – who recently made headlines for taking a (partially clothed) dip in the Sea of Galilee during a congressional trip to Israel – is favored to win a second term given the general ideological drift in this part of the state, but his victory is not a foregone conclusion. The district is slightly more Democratic than it was before redistricting, but it still only voted 47 percent for Obama in 2008. Lawson, the Democratic nominee, is a former state senator who defeated a Boyd-blessed candidate in this year’s primary.

7: Republican seat held by Rep. Dan Webster (10th district). Webster vs. Val Demings (D).

Webster was elected to Congress in 2010 when he defeated Democratic incumbent Grayson in a Democratic-leaning Orlando district. But the redistricting process was kind to Webster: His new constituents gave Obama only 47 percent of their vote in 2008. This may end up saving his seat, since the Democratic nominee is being pegged as a future star: Val Demings, the daughter of a janitor and a maid who rose to become police chief in Orlando. One Democrat calls her “flat out the most impressive Democratic candidate for Congress in Florida this year. Unfortunately for her, it’s a marginal district at best. But if it doesn't happen this year, Orlando is changing rapidly and it will happen in the near future. Get used to this name.”

8: Republican seat held by Rep. C.W. (Bill) Young (13th district). Young vs. Jessica Ehrlich (D).

Young, who first won his Tampa Bay-area seat in 1970, has continued to put off his retirement from Congress, and the voters have consistently signaled their approval. This year should be no exception, but the Democratic nominee -- Jessica Ehrlich, a former aide to members of both parties in Congress – seems to have a future. Once Young retires, it will one of the most competitive seats in the nation; this year’s campaign is all about Ehrlich laying the groundwork for that eventuality.

All other seats considered safe for incumbent party.

Louis Jacobson, Times Staff Writer

[Last modified: Thursday, August 30, 2012 10:20am]


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