Hernando's former sheriff got off to a bumpy start when he decided to run for Congress.
Republican Rich Nugent drew criticism in 2010 when he quietly filed to run at the last minute at the request of Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, who filed but then immediately dropped out for health reasons. Critics said the plan denied other would-be challengers the chance for an open seat.
Two years later, that controversy has receded and Nugent has caught a couple of political breaks that have all but assured the 61-year-old a second term.
His Democratic challenger is H. David Werder, a disabled former truck driver and perennial candidate making his seventh bid for Congress. In a district that leans Republican, the 57-year-old Spring Hill resident is considered a long shot, at best.
Werder didn't have a primary opponent, but he has raised no money and garnered no support from a state party focused on more competitive races.
That hasn't stopped the feisty Werder.
Nugent and his fellow Republicans, Werder maintains, are mostly to blame for what ails the country.
"It was Republicans in Congress … that created policies that coddle the wealthy," Werder said. "It was not the poor that got us into this Great Recession."
• • •
As he sought re-election, Nugent was the beneficiary of a redistricting process that pared down the sprawling 5th District that Brown-Waite represented for eight years. The new District 11 — composed of all of Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties and a portion of Marion — no longer includes Pasco County, heading off a potential match-up between Nugent and state Sen. Mike Fasano.
Then Cliff Stearns, an Ocala Republican who lives in District 11, decided to run in another district. That left Nugent without a GOP primary opponent.
"People aren't going to always agree with you, but I think we try to be pretty fair in regards to what we say and try to keep the partisanship out of it," he said. "I hear from Democrats all the time that they appreciate it."
Nugent, however, has adopted his predecessor's bitingly critical tone in news releases, blasting President Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress for their policies, or for failing to take any action at all.
Elected amid a wave of tea party discontent, Nugent signed conservative activist Grover Norquist's pledge not to raise taxes. He drew criticism from the tea party last year for voting to raise the debt ceiling.
Nugent said the compromise he supported, though not perfect, was a start toward reining in spending and featured a "game changer" — a requirement for Congress to vote on an amendment to the Constitution requiring a balanced budget each year.
The amendment ultimately died when put to a vote. Nugent vows to keep pushing for it.
Otherwise, he said, "It's kind of hard to contemplate how you ever get out of this mess that we're in."
Nugent has toed the GOP line over the past two years, voting with party leaders 96 percent of the time, according to the nonpartisan opencongress.org.
He voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and supported an extension of the Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, expanding law enforcement's investigative and detention powers. He also voted to give states the final say on rules regarding water, wetlands and mountaintop-removal mining. Supporters said the bill aimed to bolster states' rights and protect jobs, but critics said a lack of federal oversight would compromise water quality.
Nugent said a Medicare reform plan proposed last year by fellow Republican Rep. (and now vice presidential candidate) Paul Ryan and Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden deserves an honest debate. The proposal, which would not affect anyone older than 55, would give seniors the choice to pick between Medicare and private plans as part of a government-run exchange.
A father of three sons in the military, including one who served in Afghanistan in 2008, Nugent said it was a mistake to start drawing down U.S. troop levels in that country during the "fighting season" of the warmer months. Now that insurgents know the Americans are leaving and the attacks on U.S. personnel by rogue Afghan security forces are increasing, all troops should be pulled out immediately, he said.
Nugent supports harsher sanctions on Iran but has not ruled out military intervention to keep the country from building a nuclear weapon.
"I don't think we should ever telegraph our intentions, but everything's on the table," he said.
He favors the so-called fair tax — a national sales tax to replace federal income tax.
Nugent says he is most proud of his first piece of legislation, even if it didn't pass.
The measure, dubbed the Congress is not a Career Act," would allow members of Congress to decline the congressional pension and taxpayer-funded match to deferred compensation plans. Nugent declined federal health benefits, but was told he could not legally turn down the pension and match.
Nugent said senior members of Congress asked him to remove the amendment from a broader pension bill. He refused. Ultimately, the bill never came up for a vote.
He plans to try again.
"It's the right thing to do," he said.
• • •
Werder calls himself the "flagpole sitter" because he sat atop a pole in Clearwater for 439 days in 1982 to protest high gas prices. America's energy independence is at the top of his platform.
Along with efforts to ramp up wind and solar power, he favors onshore and offshore domestic drilling, as long as state residents get a cut of the profits.
"The U.S. could become a net exporter of oil and natural gas in the near future, which would mean jobs and an American renaissance," he said.
Werder said he has some conservative ideals.
"I wish to be a fiscally responsible Democrat, who believes in less government and less taxes," he said.
There is at least one sector where the federal government should have a larger role, Werder said. He proposes a national health care program hinged on a system of government-run hospitals, negating the need for insurance companies.
"We need to get profit out of the health care industry," he said.