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Seats Up for Grabs

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District: 8 | 13 | 15 | 16 | 21 | 24 | South Fla.

The battle by presidential candidates for Florida’s 27 electoral votes is not the only political drama playing out in the Sunshine State. Florida’s down-ballot action includes almost half a dozen hot congressional races worth watching.

seal The biggest trend at play in those races, and indeed, overall in Florida, in the current election cycle is the so-called “purpling” of Florida’s voters — the increasing inclination of voters to position themselves somewhere between Republican red and Democrat blue.

The number of registered Florida voters who are not affiliated with either major party has increased from just 5.4% of the electorate in 1978 to more than 21% this year. Florida is home to 3.8 million registered Republicans and 4.2 million registered Democrats, but some 2.2 million voters in the Sunshine State are now registered neither as Democrat nor Republican — and those 2.2 million cast an element of uncertainty over today’s contests.

EXTRA
Hot State Race Roundup 2008
We examine a dozen Florida races where the competition is starting to heat up.
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Polling data suggests those voters tend to identify themselves as moderates and are for the most part swing voters who are willing to vote either way. “I see them as more interesting now than in the past. If they mobilize and get out, it will be hard to predict a lot of the races that are coming up,” says Marian Johnson, vice president of political strategy for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Currently, Republicans hold 16 of Florida’s 25 U.S. House seats. But with only one incumbent Democrat in any real danger of losing — freshman Rep. Tim Mahoney — Democrats have far more to gain in this year’s election than Republicans. In fact, if they hold Mahoney’s seat and manage to pick up four GOP seats, they’ll hold the delegation’s balance of power. Republican victories in all the races mentioned below would give the GOP a nine-seat advantage in the state.

Tim Mahoney [D]
Tim Mahoney [D]
Gayle Harrell [R]
Gayle Harrell [R]
Tom Rooney [R]
Tom Rooney [R]

16th District

Incumbent: Tim Mahoney (D)

District: Parts of Charlotte, Glades, Hendry, Highlands, Okeechobee, St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties

Background: Republicans are campaigning hard to try to unseat Mahoney, the Palm Beach Gardens Democrat elected in 2006 with a 2% margin of victory. Mahoney, a financial services executive and rancher, replaced Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned in 2006 when it was revealed that he had sent sexually explicit instant messages to a congressional page. Republicans are eager to reclaim the seat in the Republican-leaning district, where President Bush won with 54% of the vote in 2004.

Three Republicans are vying for the chance to take on Mahoney, including state Rep. Gayle Harrell, a former teacher, community activist and self-proclaimed “Reagan Republican” from Stuart; Tom Rooney, a lawyer and former Army captain who is the son of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney; and Hal Valeche, a Palm Beach Gardens city councilman and former Navy pilot who flew 85 combat missions in Vietnam.

Harrell, who benefits from her name recognition, and Rooney, who has considerable connections, are already emerging as the front-runners in the GOP primary.

Democratic leaders in Congress have given Mahoney high-profile committee assignments to boost his advantage as an incumbent. But Harrell, who is getting a boost in her bid from former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Florida Senate President Ken Pruitt, is already attacking Mahoney as an out-of-touch liberal who voted for the largest tax increase in history. Mahoney, meanwhile, is touting his conservative Democrat credentials. In Congress, he’s a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 47 moderate and conservative Democratic lawmakers. He’s so moderate, in fact, that he landed in the dead center of National Journal’s 2007 congressional vote ratings — with 214 members ranked more conservative and 214 more liberal based on their voting records.

Tom Feeney
Tom Feeney [R]
Suzanne Kosmas
Suzanne Kosmas [D]

24th District

Incumbent: Rep. Tom Feeney (R)

District: Parts of Brevard, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties

Background: Tarnished by his connection to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Feeney is facing a tough general election battle this fall. The Orlando-area Republican’s troubles stem from an expensive golf trip he took to Scotland in 2003 that was secretly financed by Abramoff, who as a lobbyist was prohibited from paying for congressional travel. Feeney has downplayed his association with Abramoff, who is serving time on corruption and fraud charges, saying he was unaware Abramoff had funded the trip. Nonetheless, the matter continues to dog him, and last year the congressman formed a legal defense fund to help pay costs related to a continuing Department of Justice investigation of the matter.

While Feeney won with 58% of the vote in 2006, he faces a formidable challenger this year — former state Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, a Democrat from New Smyrna Beach who served in the Florida House from 1996-2004. Kosmas must first win the Aug. 26 Democratic primary, where she will face 2006 Democratic nominee Clint Curtis. Kosmas is considerably better funded and is already getting help from the Democratic establishment in Washington. Marian Johnson, vice president of political strategy for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, says Feeney has his work cut out for him: “Suzanne Kosmas is very popular. She was a good business vote in the Florida Legislature. It’s not like he’s running against a liberal.” Other candidates include political newcomer Gaurav Bhola, who is running as an independent, and Jason Paul Davis, a Gulf War veteran and full-time college student from Port Orange, who is running as a Republican.

Vern Buchanan
Vern Buchanan [R]
Christine Jennings
Christine Jennings [D]

13th District

Incumbent: Rep. Vern Buchanan (R)

District: De Soto, Hardee, Sarasota and parts of Charlotte and Manatee counties

Background: Christine Jennings is seeking a rematch in Florida’s 13th District, where she lost to Buchanan by 369 votes in 2006. The ensuing dust-up over 18,000 undervotes in that close race resulted in a congressional investigation of the election and prompted Gov. Charlie Crist to overhaul the state’s

voting equipment, tossing its touch-screen voting machines in favor of optical scanners. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has designated the race as one of its top “Red-to-Blue” targets in 2008. It will undoubtedly be among the most expensive and most watched House races in the nation.

Money shouldn’t be an issue for either candidate. Both are millionaires with a solid base of support. Jennings, who founded a bank in Sarasota and is now retired, has raised money at a faster pace so far than the last time around, notes campaign manager Lonny Paris. Buchanan, the fourth-richest lawmaker on Capitol Hill and third-richest House member, owns car dealerships as well as interests in other businesses. He had the eighth-highest fund-raising total of any congressional candidate at $1.9 million at the end of 2007.

A bit of discouraging news for Jennings: A poll released in March by the National Republican Congressional Committee has Buchanan beating Jennings 53% to 37%.
Buchanan supporters say he will be hard to demonize, given his relatively moderate voting record during his first term in office. Adam Goodman, Buchanan’s Tampa-based media consultant, says he has “confounded the pundits who predicted he would be one kind of leader and he became another” and “voted across party lines and against cross-expectations time and again because he thought it was the right thing to do for the district.”

Jennings differs with that assessment. “I would say that my opponent is trying to pretend that he’s a moderate. He has voted almost 92% of the time with this administration.” Jennings, who plans to talk about the economy, healthcare, the war in Iraq and environmental issues, also argues that she’d be a more powerful voice for the district, since Democrats are in the majority. “That is something that everyone needs to think about — which is who can be the most effective, who can get things done.”

But Jan Schneider’s entry into the race could complicate Jennings’ plans. The Sarasota lawyer, who has run for the seat three times previously as a Democrat, is running as an independent this time because of her concerns about the war in Iraq and “preserving the endangered middle class.” Don Baldauf, a registered Republican from Bradenton who owns a security company, has also filed to run as an independent candidate.

8th District

Charlie Stuart [D]
Charlie Stuart [D]
Democrat Charlie Stuart, a 56-year-old marketing consultant from Orlando who is challenging Keller for a second time, says Keller should have been spending more time working on issues that are relevant to his constituents.
[Photo: Gregg Matthews]

In 2000, Ric Keller told voters he’d only serve eight years. Rep. Keller now says that ‘as a rookie candidate’ he ‘underestimated the value of experience and seniority.’ His GOP opponent, Todd Long, says ‘the opportunity is there for Ric Keller to be beaten very badly.’

Incumbent: Ric Keller (R)

Ric Keller [R]
Ric Keller [R]
Todd Long [R]
Todd Long [R]
District: Parts of Orlando and surrounding Orange County as well as parts of Osceola, Lake and Marion counties

Background: Rep. Ric Keller likes to tout his work on the House Judiciary Committee and his role in drafting legislation that links airline passenger manifests to the FBI’s Terrorist Watch list. Keller’s opponents, however, would rather talk about the congressman’s 2003 attempt to push through a “Cheeseburger Bill,” which would have shielded fast-food restaurants and other food industry businesses from obesity-related lawsuits. Democrat Charlie Stuart, a 56-year-old marketing consultant from Orlando who is challenging Keller for a second time, says Keller should have been spending more time working on issues that are relevant to his constituents. “Right now, there’s a massive problem with foreclosures. Where is the Orlando, Florida, congressman on this issue? He’s busy working on other issues ... like making sure sexual predators don’t get Pell grants. We have thousands of people in central Florida getting ready to lose their homes, and he’s nowhere on the radar screen.” Stuart came within six points of beating Keller in 2006.

Mike Smith, a former assistant state attorney and a lawyer with Morgan and Morgan in Orlando, was the first Democrat to enter the race, and his solid fund-raising numbers underscore the strength of his campaign. Also vying for the Democratic nod are Alan Grayson, a 50-year-old lawyer who has been prosecuting war profiteers, including companies and corrupt politicians; law school student Quoc Van; and Alexander Fry, an optical engineer and a self-described “dark horse” of the race.

Keller has a tough primary fight ahead of him first. His sole GOP challenger is Todd Long, an Orlando personal injury attorney and conservative radio talk show host who decided to challenge Keller after the congressman broke the four-year term limit pledge he made when he first ran in 2000. Long has been walking the district for 16 months and has already raised about a quarter of a million dollars.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart [R]
Lincoln Diaz-Balart [R]
Raul Martinez [D]
Raul Martinez [D]

21st District

Incumbent: Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R)

District: Most of Hialeah and Kendall

Background: Since 1992, when he was first elected, Diaz-Balart has enjoyed a comfortable tenure in office with little to no competition for this Hispanic majority district. All that changed on Jan. 22, when former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Democrat, announced he would challenge the longtime lawmaker.

The race will likely engender a vigorous debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba. While Diaz-Balart supports a hard line on Cuba, Martinez is in favor of easing the Bush administration’s travel restrictions on Cuban émigrés, although he does not support an end to the four-decade embargo of the island.

The race will almost certainly get dirty and personal. Upon Martinez’s entry into the race, Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, denounced Democrats for recruiting a candidate “who was convicted on charges of corruption and never acquitted by any jury” and accused Martinez of having a “record of corruption, crude behavior and offensive rhetoric.”

Lincoln Diaz-Balart told the Miami Herald he will not be defeated: ‘I will talk about my record, my achievements, about all that I’ve done all these years in Washington for this community. My
record speaks for itself.’.
The former mayor was convicted on six counts of conspiracy, extortion and racketeering in the early 1990s and sentenced to prison, but the charges were dropped on appeal. Last September, after Greer criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton for attending a fund raiser at Martinez’s house, an angry Martinez referred to Greer using a vulgar term for a female body part and offered “to have a debate mano a mano” if any Republican wanted to “take him on.”

Mario Diaz-Balart [R]
Mario Diaz-Balart [R]
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R]
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R]
Joe Garcia [D]
Joe Garcia [D]
Annette Taddeo  [D]
Annette Taddeo [D]

South Florida Trifecta?

Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart isn’t the only Republican under attack in Miami-Dade County. Democrats are mounting an ambitious bid this year to try to take over the seats of three south Florida Republicans. Diaz-Balart’s brother Mario, who has represented the 25th District since 2003, has drawn a challenge from Joe Garcia, a Democratic strategist and former director of the Cuban American National Foundation. In the 18th District, Democrat Annette Taddeo, a Colombia-born business executive, is taking on Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Dave Weldon [R]
Dave Weldon [R]
Bill Posey [R]
Bill Posey [R]
Paul Rancatore [D]
Paul Rancatore [D]

15th District — Smooth Sailing?

Don’t expect too much of a battle in the Space Coast’s 15th District, where Republican Rep. Dave Weldon is retiring after seven terms in Congress to return to his medical practice and devote more time to his family. Republican Party officials have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the seat does not fall into Democratic hands. In February, GOP leaders convinced state Rep. Stan Mayfield not to run for the seat in hopes of clearing the field for state Sen. Bill Posey as his likely successor. GOP Chairman Jim Greer took the unusual step of presenting a Rule 11 letter to Posey, which entitles him to financial support during the primary from the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. Nonetheless, Posey has drawn two GOP competitors in the primary: Alan Bergman, a businessman from Indiatlantic and Kevin Lehoullier, a Fellsmere resident who is a senior executive at a cheese importing company. Trevor Lowing, a resident of Satellite Beach who has worked in the local defense, space and technology industries, is a registered Republican but is running on the ballot with no party affilation. Frank Zilaitis, a lawyer from Melbourne, has also filed as a no-party candidate. Democrats’ best hope for the seat is Paul Rancatore, an American Airlines’ captain and operating officer for I-Texas Wireless. He’ll do battle for the Democratic nomination with physician Stephen Blythe. While more than half of the 15th District’s voters live in Brevard, the district also encompasses all of Indian River County and parts of Osceola and Polk counties. Posey has served in the Legislature since 1992 and is the current chair of the important Banking and Insurance Committee.