From above, the long slender stretch of Palm Beach County and parts of Broward County that make up Florida’s 22nd Congressional District looks vulnerable, like it could be washed away or broken in half. It’s 60 miles long, but only seven miles wide, bordered by the beach to the east and I-95 to the west.
But it is the district’s population, roughly 660,000, not its geography, that makes it unstable, at least politically. The district’s registration numbers pretty evenly match Democrats and Republicans. But nearly a quarter of the registered voters there are independent. At times of intense voter unrest, those independents become a wild card.
That political instability explains how the incumbent, Democrat Ron Klein, was able to vanquish 13-term congressman Clay Shaw in the 2006 midterm elections: The national mood had turned against the party in power at the time, the Republicans under President George W. Bush. Two years later, Klein beat back a challenge by a former Army officer named Allen West, in a state that turned out for Barack Obama. Now West has returned, and this time he has the national momentum — and money.
West — who admits he doesn’t live in the district (he’s not required to by law) — has drawn attention well outside the confines of District 22, even outside of Florida. He’s an Iraq war veteran, speaks at tea party rallies, holds fundraisers at shooting ranges and calls his opponent names. He received a coveted Sarah Palin endorsement.
His press releases still use his military title, lieutenant colonel, even though he resigned after standing trial for assaulting an Iraqi detainee he believed to have information about imminent attacks. (West has said he would do it again, and that after the interrogation attacks stopped. But the detainee has since said he knew nothing about a plot and that he gave fictitious information to West because he feared for his life.)
Tapping into tea party furor has helped him raise an unprecedented $4 million (compared to the roughly $585,000 he raised in 2008), 96 percent of it from individual contributors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That staggering amount has caught Klein, who has raised about $2.5 million (roughly the same amount he raised in 2008) off guard. At the state’s official Democratic Party dinner in July, Klein told those assembled he needed their help because the Republicans had targeted his seat to win back.
Both camps recently released polls showing they were ahead in a district that has traditionally had slightly more registered Republicans. When Klein first won in 2006, roughly 40 percent of the district’s registered voters were red, and 37 percent were blue. Today those numbers have narrowed to a virtual tie, 37 percent Republicans, 36.8 percent Democrats.
On Sept. 21, the Klein campaign released an internal poll it commissioned of 500 likely voters showing that it led 48 percent to 40. A day later, the West campaign released a more recent poll of 300 people, indicating West had a 48-42 lead over Klein. Klein staffers dismiss West’s poll, saying that there were problems with how it was conducted, and point to yet another poll conducted for Democrats by a Colorado think tank. That poll of 500 likely voters, done on Sept. 22, put Klein ahead 48 percent to 43 percent.
Safe to say it’s a close race. And that, predictably, has led to a heated battle.
West has tried to portray Klein as a rabid liberal in lockstep with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom the right has tried to demonize. Klein, meanwhile, would like voters to see West as “extreme right wing,” and tags his association with Sarah Palin, a figure reviled by the left.
West maintains that he will be an independent voice in Congress, not beholden to the Republican leadership. His campaign manager Josh Grodin says that because of that independence, West will be willing to work on bipartisan issues. But his rhetoric seems to suggest otherwise.
West has called Klein a “pathetic liberal,” and attacks his support of the bank bailout and the health care reform bill. Because of his work as a community organizer, West calls President Obama “a low-level socialist agitator.” And in a controversial statement at a fundraiser, West told his supporters to make Klein “scared to come out of his house.”
Without a political record of West’s to question, Klein, a lawyer who was first elected to the Florida House in 1992 and considers himself a moderate, has resorted to scrutinizing his opponent’s personal life. He’s hammered West for owing back taxes and not paying his credit card bills — which led to a judgment against him by American Express. Klein has contrasted those facts against West’s pronouncements about personal responsibility and the need to keep down government spending. West has admitted he is attempting to repay roughly $15,000, and shoots back that Klein misspent taxpayer money by voting for the emergency financial measures known as TARP.
In one instance, the state Democratic Party paid for a mailer showing pictures of the lien that included West’s Social Security Number. The Democrats said it was a mistake. West said it was an “unprecedented low in American politics.”
West is hoping to cast himself as a principled outsider, whose tough talk means he is willing to take on the establishment. Klein’s strategy, meanwhile, is to hope West keeps running his mouth, so the tough talk about cutting federal government, including Medicare, turns off the district’s voters, especially the roughly 22 percent who are seniors.
Amid the rhetoric, perhaps despite it, both men are counting on those much-sought-after independents to view them as reasonable, or at least the reasonable choice to send to Washington, D.C.