Safe seats become hot ones for Florida GOP

NEW SMYRNA BEACH — Tom Feeney's path to Congress was easy. As Florida House speaker in 2002, he used his power to carve a safe seat for himself.

But after three terms in Washington and a fateful overseas golf junket, a once-rising Republican star could be finished. Stigmatized by his ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Feeney is a symbol of the tarnished Republican brand in this volatile election year.

In a traditionally Republican district, voters along Central Florida's I-4 corridor are taking a long look at Democrat Suzanne Kosmas. A real estate agent and former state lawmaker, she has lived in the district for 35 years.

Part of the reason is demographic. Six years ago, nearly 44 percent of voters in the 24th Congressional District were registered Republican; today the figure is just below 40 percent.

For weeks, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has hammered Feeney's ethics in TV ads, juxtaposing his face with phrases like "corruption scandal."

In response, Feeney, long known for brash self-confidence and partisan rhetoric, ran an extraordinary TV ad apologizing for what he called "a rookie mistake."

That was his 2003 golf outing to Scotland that he said he thought was paid for by a conservation foundation — not the disgraced Abramoff, who's now serving time for corruption. Feeney repaid the $5,643 cost of the trip to the U.S. Treasury.

"I embarrassed myself, embarrassed you, and for that, I'm very sorry," Feeney says in the ad.

But it doesn't appear to be enough for some voters.

"I just think Tom Feeney's a crook. I don't like to be so blunt, but I don't trust him," said Sandy Kerns, 66, a Republican and a hospital secretary who voted early at her local library.

Feeney is now so vulnerable that the National Republican Congressional Committee this week stopped buying TV ads on his behalf.

The pugnacious, hyperpartisan style that served Feeney well in Tallahassee and Washington suddenly seems passe, while Kosmas echoes Barack Obama's theme of change.

She accuses Feeney of perpetuating the divisive politics that people are tired of, and of supporting policies that hurt families, such as votes against a children's health insurance program.

Feeney called it socialized medicine and claimed it would have insured illegal immigrant children.

He enthusiastically favors free markets, low taxes and little government regulation.

Debating Kosmas in Port Orange, he cited support from business groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries. He linked his rival to Speaker Nancy Pelosi "and her high-tax, high-spend San Francisco values."

"This is what's wrong with Washington … dividing us as a country over small issues and wedge issues," Kosmas replied, calling herself a small-business owner who meets payrolls.

Feeney isn't the only Republican member of Congress from Florida who's in trouble.

His Orlando-area colleague, Republican Ric Keller, broke a personal term-limits pledge and faces a challenge from wealthy businessman Alan Grayson, a Democrat.

Miami's Diaz-Balart brothers, Republicans Lincoln and Mario, who won with nearly 20 percent margins two years ago, are trying to fend off Democrats Raul Martinez and Joe Garcia.

But Feeney is considered the least likely of the group to win.

"He's going to lose," predicted analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who tracks races for the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report.

Feeney declined to be interviewed. A spokeswoman said he feels he has received unfair coverage from the St. Petersburg Times.

In his district, Feeney still has a following. Veterans such as Bill Carlson, a retired Army brigadier general, credit Feeney with helping to land funding for a new veterans hospital in Orlando, where ground was broken Friday.

Republican Virginia Gora, 62, a speech pathologist, said she voted to send Feeney back to Washington.

"There's been a lot of distortion of his record," she said, such as suggestions that veterans now oppose Feeney, who has the support of a national VFW political action committee.

In the final weeks, Feeney is running an ad that says Kosmas "wanted drivers' licenses for illegals and terrorists." It shows the menacing face of Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers.

The ad has no documentation, and Kosmas calls the charge a lie and an act of desperation.

Feeney's campaign did not respond to requests to prove the charge. But one who did favor licenses for illegals was former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who picked Feeney as his running mate in an unsuccessful first bid for governor in 1994.

Kosmas, 64, says her priorities are affordable health care and alternative energy sources, but she added she wants to change the tone as well.

She says she will disclose her daily schedule on a Web site and will not take gifts or trips from lobbyists or become one after leaving Congress.

"People want a government they can trust," Kosmas said.

Times staff writer David Adams contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

Florida's 24th Congressional District

Voter registration in the district that covers parts of Orange, Volusia, Seminole and Brevard counties has exploded more than 41 percent in six years. Registrations now and in 2002, the year Tom Feeney was first elected:

2002

Republicans: 166,639 (43.9%)

Democrats: 136,002 (35.9%)

No party/other: 76,644 (20.2%)

Total: 379,285

2008

Republicans: 211,204 (39.5%)

Democrats: 189,333 (35.4%)

No party/other: 134,269 (25.1%)

Total: 534,806

Safe seats become hot ones for Florida GOP 10/24/08 [Last modified: Saturday, October 25, 2008 2:04pm]

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