TAMPA — When Republican Vern Buchanan first ran for office in 2006, he had to survive a machine and manual recount and a court challenge to confirm his squeaker 369-vote victory.
Since then, the Sarasota businessman — ranked by Forbes as one of the wealthiest members of Congress — has breezed through re-election campaigns. That remained true even after he was redistricted to Florida’s 16th Congressional District in 2013 and his new district later redrawn to include southern Hillsborough County.
But Democrats are increasingly hopeful that his prospects in this general election could be damaged by the economic fallout of the pandemic, and from a contentious presidential race they hope will drive more Democrats to the polls.
Also, Buchanan faces Margaret Good, a proven fundraiser who, unlike previous opponents, has been able to match Buchanan in donations. Good has benefitted from being on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue, an effort to increase the Democrats' majority in the U.S. House of Representatives by raising donations for “top-tier candidates.”
Both candidates have raised about $2.7 million. Buchanan, however, can also call on $500,000 he has loaned his campaign.
Good has tried to make the campaign about what she says is the GOP’s failure to address the economic concerns of people who have lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic. In the past few weeks, the campaign has played out against the backdrop of a divided Congress that has failed to pass a second stimulus package.
“I think economic and health issues are really at the forefront of people’s minds,” Good said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. “We are in the middle of a pandemic, and there are still hundreds of thousands of people across Florida who’ve lost their jobs through no fault of their own.”
Still, Buchanan remains a formidable opponent with better name recognition and a significant cash-on-hand advantage in the final weeks of the campaign.
The demographics of the seat favor the incumbent too.
It addition to the cities of Sarasota and Bradenton, the district includes vast swaths of suburban Sarasota and Manatee counties. It stretches north to Hillsborough to include Sun City Center and parts of Fish Hawk, Gibsonton and Riverview.
About 40 percent of its registered voters are Republicans, compared to 33 percent Democrats. About one quarter of voters are registered as non-party affiliated and could help decide the race.
Buchanan, 69, said he’s campaigning on his 14-year record in Congress and his résumé as a successful businessman. In addition to several car dealerships, he owns a sizable bond portfolio, rental properties along the west coast of Florida and real estate investments in Aspen, Colo. A 2019 USA Today analysis listed his net worth at $74 million.
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His campaign touts his record of getting 22 bills passed into law. That is disputed by Good, who said it includes amendments to existing bills. Buchanan was the primary sponsor of five enacted bills, according to GovTrack.us, a government transparency website.
Buchanan said his priorities are increasing protection for seniors at risk of the coronavirus and helping to regrow the economy. He said he has been pushing to get more federal funding to protect senior communities and to make it easier for seniors to get telehealth treatment.
Even though Buchanan voted in support of President Donald Trump’s overhaul of the tax code, his campaign website still says the nation’s tax regulations punish families and small businesses, which he said are an economic force that can drive the economy back to health.
“I’m making sure we’re doing everything to support them,” he said. “I’ve created thousands of jobs. You create those jobs by building an environment that supports small businesses.”
He is calling for a non-partisan blue ribbon commission to make recommendations about how best to guarantee the long-term future of Social Security and Medicare, programs that his opponent says he has voted in the past to replace.
On health care, Good has frequently attacked Buchanan for repeated votes to repeal the protection for pre-existing conditions contained in the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. Those votes, however, were largely symbolic since they came during President Barack Obama’s second term and had little chance of progressing.
A tougher vote for Buchanan came in 2017 with his support of the American Health Care Act. The proposal, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected would increase the number of uninsured people by 23 million over 10 years, passed in the House, but a similar bill failed to gain support in the Senate.
Buchanan disputes that he supports abolishing protections for pre-existing conditions and said he is willing to work with Democrats to fix health care.
“I was hoping (Obamacare) would lower costs; it never did. It just kept going up and up and up” Buchanan said. “This is too critical to all Americans.”
Good, an attorney with Eastmoore, Crauwels & DuBose, rose to prominence in 2018 when she defeated Buchanan’s son, James Buchanan, in a February special election for a Republican-leaning state house district. The race became a proxy in the national political fight, drawing donors from across the country and high-profile assistance from former Vice President Joe Biden and from President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.
Good, 44, said she learned in that fight that voters are disgruntled about the failure of politicians to advocate and represent those who got them elected.
She supports strengthening the Affordable Care Act and lowering health care costs. She shares Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s call for lower taxes for the nation’s middle class. She supports Florida expanding Medicaid to give coverage to an additional 800,000 Floridians.
“It should be a priority issue for every single elected official in Florida,” Good said.
Both candidates have produced attack mailers and TV advertisements blasting the other for taking advantage of a federal program.
Three car dealerships owned by Buchanan received as much as $7 million from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was intended to help small businesses keep people on their payroll during the pandemic.
Companies applying for loans through the program had to disclose how many jobs could be saved with the financial assistance. One of Buchanan’s firms, Sarasota 500 LLC, reported the money would save "0″ jobs, according to a U.S. Treasury database.
Buchanan’s campaign has fired back, calling Good a hypocrite since her law firm also received federal payout funds. But Good is not a partner in the law firm and was not involved in applying for the funds. She has been on sabbatical while running for office, according to Alex Koren, her campaign manager.