BARTOW — After 12 years in politics, U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam knows how to get a crowd going. At a debate in Bartow on Tuesday, many in the audience applauded the Republican candidate for District 12 when he spoke about Social Security, which he says needs reform.
"Where is your plan, sir?" he asked his opponent without making eye contact, his voice raising.
His opponent, Democratic candidate Doug Tudor, just retired after 20 years in the military and doesn't have a background in politics. He may still get nervous while speaking, but he says the ethics and the integrity he gained in the military would help him in Washington.
By many standards, Putnam has the advantage. He's running for a fifth term. He's the third highest-ranking Republican in the House. And he has raised about $1.5-million more than Tudor.
But Tudor thinks Putnam's party and past might work against him this election. People are fed up with Republican leadership, Tudor said. He points out that Putnam has voted in line with his party about 98 percent of the time.
"Adam's bought and paid for," Tudor, of Riverview, said.
Tudor says that although he's running on the Democratic ticket, "nobody owns me." He said he'll vote independent of his party when needed.
At Lakeland's "Politics in the Park" event last week, Putnam said he's not worried about taking on someone "who openly runs as an unabashed liberal Democrat."
"I believe that my experience and my conservative values appeal to people in District 12," he said.
Tudor prefers the term "progressive Democrat," and he said he's not afraid to take some progressive stances, including advocating for a single-payer health care system, which he says is like a super-Medicare. He figures his conservative military background will appeal to moderates.
Statistics show the party-line division in District 12 is close, even leaning Democratic. There are about 160,000 Republicans and about 180,000 Democrats registered in District 12, according to July data from Florida's Division of Elections.
District 12 includes Polk County, part of Osceola County, and part of Hillsborough County, including the South Shore area, Brandon and Thonotosassa.
Putnam has a relatively easy time getting support in Polk County. He grew up in Bartow, where his family owns a large cattle and orange grove business. There's a lot of agriculture in Polk, and he's received thousands of donations from local farmers.
Putnam won the straw vote at the Politics in the Park event, with 62 percent of the 589 votes.
Tudor, who lives in Riverview, says he has better luck in Hillsborough.
Tudor decided to run for office because he said he was fed up with Putnam. He felt he didn't have a say, and he's vowing to represent everyone, not just Democrats.
He knows it's tough running against an incumbent, who also served four years in Florida's Legislature.
On Nov. 4, it may come down to the issues and the two candidates have divergent views. Putnam wants states to have the right to drill for oil within 100 miles of the coastline while Tudor wants to ban drilling within 225 miles. Putnam wants small businesses to be able to pool their employees to negotiate for health care while Tudor wants a single-payer health care system.
But it seems the two largely agree on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. They want to pull some troops from Iraq and send more to Afghanistan.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.