1. Florida Politics

In 2012 race for Congress, rage is out, solutions are in

In this ad, GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan touts bipartisanship — “We’ve got to find a way to work together.” He doesn’t mention he’s a three-term incumbent. He faces Keith Fitzgerald in District 16.
In this ad, GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan touts bipartisanship — “We’ve got to find a way to work together.” He doesn’t mention he’s a three-term incumbent. He faces Keith Fitzgerald in District 16.
Published Oct. 7, 2012

This is Rep. Allen West in Washington: aggressive, blunt and partisan — the tea party hero who compares Democrats to communists and Nazis.

This is candidate Allen West on TV in South Florida: even-mannered and surrounded by smiling schoolkids.

It's a shift that his opponent hopes voters don't buy. "Congress shouldn't be a kids' playground," Democrat Patrick Murphy says in an ad, standing to punctuate a point about West's rhetoric. "They're supposed to analyze problems and work together to solve them."

The contest for Florida's 18th District reveals how much the national mood has shifted in two years since West and a wave of Republicans were elected to the U.S. House amid epic battles with Democrats over everything from health care to energy-efficient light bulbs.

The partisanship, helped by a Democratic-controlled Senate, resulted in one of the least productive Congresses and drove public approval to all-time lows.

So candidates in 2012 are responding with messages that play up a familiar "Washington is broken" refrain along with a side order of "let's all get along." Rage is out, solutions are in.

• "We've got to find a way to work together," says Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, in an ad that makes no mention he's an incumbent and ends with an outsider's lament: "Because Washington needs to hear this."

• "If you like name-calling or slick political ads, then flip the channel. But if you're looking for someone who thinks both parties got us in this mess, then hear me out," says Adam Hasner, a Republican running for Congress in South Florida who was once touted as one of the most partisan state lawmakers in Tallahassee.

• "In Congress, I'll work with both parties," says Joe Garcia, a Democrat seeking to dislodge Rep. David Rivera of Miami.

The approach is being replicated in competitive House districts across the country that will decide whether Republicans continue to control the House and Democrats keep the Senate. Promises of reaching across the aisle may be vital to breaking the gridlock — if only politicians mean it.

"Voters love this idea of compromise," said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report. "Unfortunately, it shows up more in ads than in voting records these days."

The reality is there are fewer moderates in both parties in Congress, a reflection in large part of the way districts are drawn to the advantage of more partisan candidates. Elected officials keep the party line.

The softer tone on the airwaves (there are plenty of nasty attacks as well) is a natural extension of a presidential election, said Brad Coker of the nonpartisan Mason-Dixon Polling and Research. Midterm elections draw a smaller pool of die-hard partisan voters, so candidates appeal to those tendencies.

"You get into a presidential election and there are several million people jumping into the pool that weren't part of that so-called rage that occurred in 2010. You have to talk to that audience differently," Coker said.

Take Rep. Steve Southerland, a Panama City Republican who defeated longtime moderate Democrat Allen Boyd in 2010. Southerland is still pledging to repeal the health care law and slash budgets, dominant themes of 2010. But he's also talking about working with like-minded Democrats. On the campaign trail he tells voters about his support for a resolution on aid to Libya pushed by one of the most liberal members of the House, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.

"I will work with members of both parties to find solutions to our pressing problems," Southerland says in a radio ad, "but I will not sell out my core beliefs for a cheap political hit."

• • •

Two years ago, Republicans took 63 House seats from Democrats, including two others in Florida besides West and Southerland. The tea party was riding high with strong antigovernment sentiments and the outspoken freshman class pursued a budget-slashing agenda that left few areas untouched.

Now Democrats are trying to use those moves against them, striving to turn the election into a referendum on the tea party. One of the most visible battlegrounds is Florida's 18th district.

Murphy has been attacking West for voting for a budget blueprint authored by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is Mitt Romney's running mate, that would cut trillions from the federal budget and overhaul Medicare into a voucher-type program. Murphy has also been trying to highlight West's rhetoric, casting him as a hothead. West has taken steps to project a softer image — including the ad showing him inside a classroom — and talks about finding solutions, but doesn't go as far as to play up reaching across the aisle.

West says he and Republicans are trying to preserve Medicare for future generations and accuses President Barack Obama of cutting $716 billion out of it as part of the health care law. (The Ryan budget incorporates those same cuts/savings, but Republicans aren't mentioning that.)

The competing messages about Medicare, Social Security and who is responsible for the poor economy make for a muddy picture and explain why the 2012 election will likely not be a so-called wave election in which one party dominates.

"Voters don't know whether to blame Obama's party or the tea party for dysfunction in Washington," said Wasserman of Cook Political Report. "In 2010 it was pretty easy to assign blame because Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. In 2006, it was easy because Republicans controlled the White House and Congress. Now it's as split as can be. You don't have unilateral blame and you don't have unilateral momentum."

Democrats need to gain at least 25 seats to recapture the House, but most experts say they will fall well short. In Florida, Democrats will likely see a return of former Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando, who is a reverse image of the blunt-talking, partisan West and was defeated in 2010. Grayson is running in one of two new districts Florida gained from the once-a-decade reapportionment.

Republican Todd Long is trying to highlight Grayson's antics, much like Murphy is with West. "Screaming isn't going to help anyone's life," he said in an interview. "People want someone with a solution."

Democrats also contend they have a chance of unseating Rivera in Miami and Buchanan in Sarasota, both of whom have been dogged by ethics investigations, though both are tenacious campaigners. In South Florida, Democrat Lois Frankel is slightly favored over Hasner. In Central Florida, Democrat Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief, is creating buzz against incumbent Rep. Dan Webster.

Even if Democrats improve the imbalance in Florida's delegation — the current breakdown is 19 Republicans and six Democrats — it's unlikely to do much in the national picture.

• • •

Republican hopes of taking the majority in the Senate, with a net gain of four seats, have somewhat faded for a variety of reasons, including weak candidates and the strength of Obama in states such as Ohio.

Republicans desperately worked to force Todd Akin out of the Senate race in Missouri after his comments about "legitimate rape," but he refused and now incumbent Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill is favored.

One unexpected upside for Republicans is the Senate race in Connecticut, with Linda McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, surging against her Democratic opponent, whom she describes as rigidly partisan.

"Chris Murphy — he isn't reaching across the aisle — or looking out for Connecticut jobs," McMahon said in a recent ad.

In neighboring Massachusetts, Republican Sen. Scott Brown is trying so hard to highlight his bipartisan side that he has an ad featuring President Obama.

Republican hopes have also faded in part due to Florida, where two-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson holds a steady lead on Republican Connie Mack. Nelson voted for every major initiative under Obama but is trying to appeal to the middle — a longtime campaign tactic of his.

"Remember in the old days where partisan politics stopped at the water's edge?" Nelson said at an event last month in the Panhandle. "On anything that had to do with foreign affairs or national defense, it was always bipartisan. When I went in as a young congressman, that's the way it was. A lot of that's gone now and we've got to get it back."

Alex Leary can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.


  1. Richard Sajko of Valrico talks about how he killed one of the two bears on the back of his pickup truck in 2015 during the first Florida Black Bear hunt in 21 years at the Rock Springs Run Wildlife Management Area near Lake Mary. The hunt was so controversial that state officials have not held a second one. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
    But commissioners leave the door open for future hunts in next decade
  2. An Air Force carry team moves a transfer case containing the remains of Navy Seaman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, of St. Petersburg, Fla., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019, at Dover Air Force Base, Del. A Saudi gunman killed three people including Haitham in a shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) [CLIFF OWEN  |  AP]
    Foreign citizens are allowed to buy guns if they first get a hunting license
  3. Marie Oneal sets up voting booths ahead of Election Day at the First United Methodist Church in Seffner on Aug. 27. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times] [JONES, OCTAVIO  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    Delays in implementing key changes are facing insurmountable hurdles before the Nov. 3 general election.
  4. Ladarine Williams, an inmate at Avon Park Correctional Institution. The tire facility teaches inmates a vocational skill and helps instill work ethic and responsibility in the inmates. (Times file photo) [Highlands Today]
    The Florida Department of Transportation outsources a key part of toll-by-plate to a contractor who uses prison labor.
  5. Former television journalist Alan Cohn (left) and State Rep. Adam Hattersley are Democratic candidates in Florida's 15th Congressional District. (Photos courtesy of Alan Cohn and Adam Hattersley.)
    Republican Ross Spano is vulnerable, but dueling endorsements Wednesday show there will be a tough primary before anyone takes him on.
  6. Tampa strip club owner Joe Redner is challenging the state on its rules governing medical pot. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
    The Florida Department of Health is challenging a ruling that found a state law requiring medical marijuana operators to grow, process and sell cannabis and derivative products runs afoul of a...
  7. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) [STEVE CANNON  |  AP]
    “I think it’s really important to note that we are behind the curve on this,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.
  8. A Honeybell orange hangs from a tree affected by citrus greening in Cee Bee's Citrus' orchard in Odessa, in 2018. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES   |   Times]
    “I don’t know how many plagues were going to fight, but we’re getting very close to biblical proportions,” a top Florida citrus official told state senators.
  9. Copy of the Articles of Impeachment, Tuesday in Washington. House Democrats announced they are pushing ahead with two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump - abuse of power and obstruction of Congress - charging he corrupted the U.S. election process and endangered national security in his dealings with Ukraine. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) [PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS  |  AP]
    The new articles of impeachment carry historical echoes in some ways.
  10. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis raises his hands after being asked about his relationship with two Ukrainian businessmen during an announcement at a Palm Harbor Walmart Monday, Nov. 4, 2019. DeSantis refused to answer questions about the two men. [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
    During a news conference in Naples, DeSantis launched into a long-winded discussion of American history, which he said young people need to know better.