ORLANDO — As the waiter delivered a heaping tuna salad sandwich and waffle fries, Bill Jones cut to the chase about U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson.
"He's totally lost my vote with how he's acted publicly, and health care just plays into that," Jones said from his sidewalk table at Dexter's, a busy downtown spot.
Two years ago Jones, a 44-year-old consultant, was one of the independent voters that helped the blunt-talking Orlando Democrat win a seat in Congress. Today the health care debate has collided with Jones' fears about the economy.
"The idea is valid," he said, "but we don't have the money to pay for it."
Big and bold — just like Grayson — the 10-year, $938-billion health care law remains the most polarizing issue among voters. Along with the economy and frustration toward Washington, it has made targets of dozens of Democrats nationwide.
The threat runs across Florida, in Grayson's sprawling suburban district, in the Space Coast district of fellow freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas and in the one-time Panhandle safe haven of Rep. Allen Boyd.
Welcome to the midterms, an election cycle that could keep the country on its current course or totally upend the balance of power.
To judge what is at stake, the St. Petersburg Times talked to scores of voters in Florida's most competitive districts. Anger and discontent run high.
"She's gone, and I voted for her," Oviedo firefighter Robert Long said of Kosmas. "She sealed her fate with that (health care) vote."
"He told everyone around here he was going to vote against it," said Martha Cravanzola, a bed-and-breakfast owner in Monticello who knows Boyd and has supported him despite the fact that she is a Republican.
"A lot people are disappointed," she said. "This might be the biggest threat he's ever faced."
Midterm elections are historically rough for the ruling party, but the constellation of polarizing issues have made 2010 particularly hard. Republicans are increasingly bullish about repeating their success in the 1994 midterms.
"Democrats have embarked on an ambitious agenda and those who are most upset with the agenda are most likely to vote," said David Wasserman, who analyzes House elections for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Cook handicappers rate the Grayson and Kosmas races a "toss-up" while Boyd's is considered "lean Democratic." With the GOP expected to pick up 30 or more House seats nationwide, it's likely one of these Florida Democrats will fall.
Congressional District 8
Colorful with his attire and words (Republicans are "knuckle-dragging Neanderthals"), Grayson, 52, seems an unlikely force in conservative Orlando. But he unseated incumbent Republican Ric Keller with the excitement around Barack Obama. Today the district has more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Grayson has turned his high-profile antics into a powerful fundraising machine, using online "money bombs" to rake in donations from supporters across the country.
He has $1.5 million cash on hand, more than all of his challengers combined. But Republicans have a stable of credible candidates and the race has attracted national attention, meaning money will pour in after the Aug. 24 primary.
Todd Long, a conservative radio host in the GOP field, is making the case that Grayson is out of step with the district and points to health care as a leading example. "People aren't just against it," Long said, "they are passionately against it."
Anxiety over health care and the economy is readily apparent.
Cindy Swain, a 40-year-old mother of five and independent voter, said the health care law is symbolic of a bigger government ushered in by Democrats. "It's like they sit back and say, 'What are we going to spend our money on now?' "
Mike Wekarski, 54, voted for Grayson two years ago but is still undecided. He likes health care reform but has lacked steady work and is looking to a candidate with answers to his woes.
"I don't care what party they are, if they can help the economy, that's who I'll vote for," said Wekarski, cutting through a downtown park on his way to the library to look through help wanted ads.
Nearby, Diana McLaughlin sat on a bench watching 2-year-old Devon play with Matchbox cars. She began to cry, explaining that she took a babysitting job because her income as a Realtor plummeted.
McLaughlin, 54, no longer can afford health insurance and faces a $9,000 bill for a gastrointestinal virus that put her in the hospital for two weeks. The experience, she said, has convinced her that the health care legislation is a good thing, despite what her son and friends are saying.
"People think it's going to raise their taxes, but they don't realize it's people close to them that are going to need it," she said.
Grayson points to stories like McLaughlin's as justification for the law. He is confident he'll return for a second term, saying his campaign organization is stronger than two years ago. He touts his effort to start a home foreclosure mediation program and a large increase in federal grants for the district. "People know I bring home the bacon," he said.
Congressional District 24
The odds were against Kosmas from the start, even as she defeated Republican incumbent Tom Feeney, who got tangled up with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff..
Her district supported John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee, in 2008 and it remains Republican today. When the House first took up the health care bill in November, Kosmas was among the 39 Democrats who voted against it, saying it did not do enough to control costs.
But when the measure came up for a final vote in March, Kosmas joined the majority, a reversal that has not gone unnoticed among political analysts, who instantly put her on endangered lists. Voters noticed, too.
"I'm telling all my friends, 'I told you so,' " said Nirmal Chatterjee, a Republican and retired executive who was loading groceries into his car at the Publix in Oviedo.
And yet if Kosmas had not voted for the plan she would have alienated her party base. "After she voted no the first time, I wrote her a nasty note and told her that if she voted against it I'd never vote for her again," said David Jones, 62, a government worker.
"She's overly cautious," he added. "I think she's trying to have it both ways."
Kosmas, 66, avoids questions about re-election, saying she is focused on her job. She has worked to get Obama to back down on some cuts to NASA (Kennedy Space Center is in the district) and has focused on small businesses, issues that may improve her chances.
"It will take care of itself at the end of the day," said Kosmas, who has a handful of credible Republican challengers.
Kosmas enjoys the same fundraising advantage as Grayson, but, as in his case, the national Republican Party is expected to get heavily involved in the race after the primary. Already the GOP has run TV ads against her on health care.
To counter negative public perception of the sprawling reform package, Kosmas holds telephone town halls and community meetings with voters to play up the benefits of new law. The issue, she said, comes up wherever she goes.
"The more that we talk to people," she said, "the better they like it."
Congressional District 2
Boyd, 64, was first elected in 1996 and has an established track record with voters in his Panhandle district, going unopposed in 2006 and taking 62 percent of the vote in 2008. But his no-to-yes vote on health care has caused surprising backlash in a district that favored McCain over Obama.
"Don't get me wrong, Allen Boyd had done a lot for Cross City," said James Vest, a Democrat and retired prison guard. "But to me, right now, that doesn't make up for voting for that health care bill. It's wrong to force people to buy health insurance.
"As far as I can see he's agreed with everything Obama has pushed," Vest continued. "They are more worried about sending money to Haiti and other places than about what our country is going through right now."
So far, unlike Grayson and Kosmas, Boyd has drawn little serious opposition. His main challenger, Panama City funeral home owner Steve Southerland, had $157,000 on hand as of March 31, compared with Boyd's $1.5 million.
But Republicans say internal polling backs up Boyd's vulnerability and will draw attention and dollars to the race. What's more, Boyd has had to spend money against a primary challenger, state Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee.
Boyd has defended his health care vote with sober statistics: 67,000 people in his district have no insurance. Like Kosmas, he has gotten help from the national Democratic Party with TV ads thanking him for his support. But he is still put on the defensive as he travels the district.
"Give it a chance and see if it will work," he pleaded with a crowd in Tallahassee in April.
• • •
No question the Florida Democrats and their colleagues across the country face steep challenges in November. But how deep depends on the economy and public opinion of health care, both of which have shown some improvement recently.
Another indicator: Obama's approval rating.
Republican pollster Neil Newhouse notes that since John F. Kennedy, presidents with ratings below 50 percent have seen their parties lose on average 41 House seats in midterm elections. This year, that would be enough for Republicans to take control.
Obama's rating is at 48 percent, according to a Real Clear Politics average of polls.
"We have six months to go and that's like two or three political lifetimes," Newhouse said. "But I'd rather be us than them."
Alex Leary can be reached at [email protected]