LAKELAND — The race to succeed U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, a five-term Republican running for state agriculture commissioner, has been sleepy so far, without the aggressive fundraising and campaigning of other competitive Florida congressional districts.
But the district will likely see plenty of drama as Election Day draws near.
Three front-runners — a Republican, a Democrat and a tea party candidate — are vying to represent the sprawling, heavily agricultural region, which runs from southern Hillsborough County to the outskirts of Orlando.
The contest could hinge on whether Randy Wilkinson, running under the tea party banner, splits the Republican vote with GOP front-runner Dennis Ross, allowing Democratic favorite Lori Edwards or perhaps 2008 Democratic nominee Doug Tudor to pull out a victory.
The seat has been in Republican hands since 1984, when Rep. Andy Ireland switched his affiliation from Democratic to Republican. Ireland was succeeded by two other high-profile Republicans, Rep. Charles Canady, who's now chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and Putnam, who rose to House Republican Conference chairman, his party's third-highest post.
On the other hand, Barack Obama lost the district by fewer than 4,000 votes to John McCain in the 2008 election, so in a neutral political environment, the contest would likely be a fair fight between the Republican and the Democrat.
The candidates will probably be on their own. Political observers say the national party committees are unlikely to spend much on the race.
The first priority of both parties is to protect incumbents, and the list of vulnerable Democratic incumbents is long. The GOP, for its part, has less cash to spend nationally and may not be able to drop a lot of money on a district that straddles two fairly expensive media markets.
"I think in this environment, it's hard for the Democrats to pull off a victory, but they mention Edwards as a prospect, and in this environment, to be a Democrat and get a mention like that shows she has prospects that most Democrats don't have," said D.C.-based political handicapper Stu Rothenberg.
In the current bullish environment for Republicans, Ross is the nominal favorite. A lawyer and former state representative, Ross has been endorsed by the Associated Industries of Florida and has the most cash on hand of any 12th District contender — $440,315. He is favored over John Lindsey in the GOP primary.
Ross touts a conservative, pro-business approach to job creation — low taxes and restrained spending — for a district that has suffered during the recession due to a precipitous decline in construction and a fall in real estate values. But in a year when outsiders often have a leg up, Ross also emphasizes that he's not afraid to take on his own party.
As a legislator, he joined only one other lawmaker in opposing a hurricane insurance package backed by Gov. Charlie Crist, then a Republican, along with GOP legislative leaders. Ross argued that it overreached and put the state at financial risk.
His rebellion prompted party leaders, led by then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, to strip him of the chairmanship of the House Insurance Committee.
"I will follow my principles even when they are contrary to what my party wants me to do," Ross said in an interview at his office in Lakeland.
Edwards, the Democratic front-runner, is a former state representative who now serves as Polk County's elected supervisor of elections. Her agenda marries a centrist profile — she's endorsed by the Blue Dog caucus of moderate-to conservative congressional Democrats — to some populist policies.
"I can offer a strong voice for middle-class people," Edwards said in an interview in Winter Haven. "I want to protect constituents from the big banks, the big oil companies and the big insurance companies."
Ross will likely attack her over the Democratic health care plan. "We will never, ever have the economy we want unless we make drastic changes to the health care system," she said.
Look for Edwards to target Ross' willingness to consider Social Security privatization.
"The private market has performed better over 80 years than Social Security has in rate of return," he said. A private role "has to be on the table," though only for those under 55 today.
Edwards faces a primary challenge from the left by Doug Tudor, a Navy veteran who held Putnam to 57 percent in 2008, the incumbent's worst performance since winning the seat. Tudor wants to end the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, reinstate the estate tax, and introduce a "living wage" and policies to aid collective bargaining and workplace safety. As of April, he had received about $39,000 in contributions.
National Democrats have given Edwards an early boost, but privately sound uneasy with her sluggish fundraising, which totaled $62,185 last quarter, with expenses of $64,774, leaving $103,703 in the bank. Edwards concedes the point.
"I would be happier if I'd raised more to date," she said. "But I still feel confident we'll have enough money to get our message out."
The looming wild card is Wilkinson. He's outgunned financially, taking in just $33,000 in the last quarter. But, unlike many tea party-backed candidates, Wilkinson has a substantial record in politics, and a life story almost custom-tailored for the farm and factory demographics of the region.
He has three master's degrees and has worked as a youth minister, a journalist and in a series of blue-collar jobs including aquatic weed control, phosphate mining and grocery bagging. He's also won seats on the School Board and the County Commission in Polk County, and has built a loyal following, especially in more rural areas of the citrus-and-cattle-heavy district.
That could make him a more potent force than many other congressional tea party contenders. So could his iconoclastic views. Democrats and independents "are getting left aside by the movement," he said. "I think I can bring them in."
Like most in the tea party movement, Wilkinson aggressively supports low taxes and low spending, but he's skeptical about oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In an interview in Lakeland, he praised some of the policies enacted by Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Obama.
Even as a GOP elected official, Wilkinson has sparred with his own party, and with the law — being accused of, but not charged with, domestic violence in 2002 and DUI in 2006.
His decision to quit the GOP this year and sign on with the tea party irked Republicans anew. A rival tea party/9-12 group has endorsed Ross, as has Freedomworks, the national group instrumental in organizing tea party protests nationally.
"The parties are just two wings of the same bird of prey," he said. Comparing congressional combat to professional wrestling, Wilkinson said that the parties "bash the other side's personalities, but they're just playing around. It's fake."