The two candidates in the Republican primary race in the 11th Congressional District offer voters similar stances on major issues, but big differences when it comes to their personal backgrounds.
U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, 67, who has represented Central Florida for 28 years in the Florida Legislature and for nearly six years in the U.S. House of Representatives, says his experience can help him restore bipartisan cooperation in Washington, D.C. And though he said he has recently moved into the newly redrawn district, he acknowledges he has never represented large swaths of it, including Hernando County.
His opponent in the Aug. 30 contest, Justin Grabelle, 34, lives outside of the district, but says he would move into it if elected. He says, however, he knows the district well as the longtime chief of staff for current District 11 Rep. Richard Nugent.
Grabelle also contrasted his youth and interest in innovation with Webster, who he said is a "perfect example" of "stagnating ideas" in Congress.
"It's a huge difference between us," Grabelle said. "He started running when he was 31 years old, and he's still there."
But Webster said that he has used that time to learn a lesson badly needed in Washington — how to work with members in and out of his party.
That, he said, was behind his two runs for speaker of the House, challenging former U.S. Rep. John Boehner last year, and then running unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as Boehner's replacement.
Though support for his challenges came mostly from the far right, including the Freedom Caucus, Webster said the purpose was to give rank-and-file members more say in the process.
"I want a principle-based, member-driven House of Representatives," he said, "as opposed to a power-based system run by a few people at the top of the pyramid."
That more inclusive approach, he said, helped with his work on one of the few bipartisan successes of recent years, a bill devoting $305 billion over five years for roads and transit that passed in December.
"Most people said, even the Democrats said, 'Yeah, this is the way we should do it,' " Webster said.
That does not mean he holds centrist positions. Webster, who made his name in Florida as a Christian conservative, opposes the transportation funding solution favored by some Democrats — raising the federal gas tax for the first time since 1993.
Instead, he said, "I'm a big supporter of toll roads. ... Toll roads are what I would consider a good Republican idea."
Most of the rest of his positions — and Grabelle's — are also in line with the party's majority.
They oppose President Obama's lifting of economic sanctions on Cuba and the Affordable Care Act. They reject the idea that any form of gun control — including a ban on assault weapons or gun ownership for people on the federal terrorist watch list — could prevent mass shootings.
"As a gun owner and concealed weapon permit holder, I strongly believe in the Second Amendment," Grabelle wrote in response to Times questions on the issues.
Webster said he thinks a better solution to violence is more mental health counseling.
Both cast themselves as strong advocates of military veterans, and Grabelle especially touts his long experience with District 11's population of veterans — one of the largest of any district in the country.
And both favor nearly identical reforms to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
They would preserve the facilities that care for patients with severe war-related injuries.
"They are phenomenal at putting people back together," Webster said.
However, for more routine care, both candidates say, veterans should see private doctors.
"Give the guys a card and let them go where they want to go," Webster said.
Grabelle said there is one issue on which he shares common ground with Democrats: energy policy. He believes, for example, that wind and solar power should be used to help combat the threat of global warming. But he thinks that increasing the use of nuclear energy is a better solution than taxes on carbon emissions, which are favored by many Democrats.
"If (Democrats) were serious about it, they would be talking about nuclear power," he said.
He believes that innovation could overcome obstacles such as dealing with nuclear waste, and says that such forward-thinking ideas differentiate him from Webster.
So does his experience in the district, he says. Though District 11 was recently redrawn to exclude Grabelle's home in Ocala, he was involved in community organizations there and said he will move if he is elected. Also, he said, his parents live in the nearby Villages, the massive retirement community that represents a crucial Republican voting bloc in the district.
Among his Hernando supporters are Property Appraiser John Emerson, former Sheriff Tom Mylander and School Board chairman Matt Foreman. Though he stepped down as Nugent's chief of staff in November, he became so identified with the office's constituent services that "I still get calls" from district residents, he said.
"They know that, because of their experience with me, they can come to me."
Webster, he pointed out, has represented only the small part of the newly redrawn District 11 that was previously part of Webster's Central Florida district.
Webster chose to run in District 11 — which covers all of Citrus, Hernando and Sumter counties and parts of Lake and Marion — because new boundaries made his old district more heavily Democratic.
"I'm totally new to Hernando and Citrus counties," he acknowledged, but said he has several prominent local supporters, including Brooksville banker Jim Kimbrough and Realtor Marilyn Pearson-Adams. He has previously represented parts of Marion and Lake, and said Sumter shares entities such as a transportation planning group and a community college with Lake.
"So many things in Sumter are tied to things in Lake," he said. "When I spoke to those groups, sometimes I was in Sumter, sometimes in Lake."
The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Dave Koller of Ocala and no-party candidate Ray Bruce Riggs of Crystal River in the November general election.
Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.