The fight for Florida’s 22nd congressional district is shaping up to be one of the most closely watched and expensive elections in the country. Again.
District 22 covers a long strip along South Florida’s eastern shoreline. Most of this swing district runs from the northern edge of Palm Beach County (which is Democrat-dominated) down to just north of Hollywood in Broward County, which also leans Democratic. Overall, Democrats hold a slight voter registration advantage.
However, tentacle-like portions of the district reach inland to pick up GOP-leaning areas, such as Parkland and Palm Beach Gardens. It was those areas that turned out heavily in 2010 to elect tea party favorite Allen West.
In just seven months in office, West has become a magnet for controversy. He earned national criticism for an aggressive email he sent to a colleague, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Pembroke Pines. In his message, he called Wasserman Schultz — the current chair of the Democratic National Committee — “vile, unprofessional, and despicable,” “a coward,” “characterless” and “not a Lady.” He demanded that she “shut the heck up.”
Comments like that — combined with rumors of waning support from West’s tea party base because of his recent vote to raise the debt ceiling, as well as possible changes to West’s district that could come when the state Legislature convenes next year — mean West will have to campaign aggressively against the two Democratic candidates already angling to take his seat.
The retired lieutenant colonel, however, is no stranger to tough campaigns.
West’s ugly (and expensive) fight in 2010 against his Democratic opponent, incumbent Ron Klein, was considered one of the most heated elections in the country. During the race, the candidates exchanged personal insults and even threatened violence. West eventually beat Klein in 2010 by 10 percent.
As West gears up for his first reelection campaign, he is by far the most well-funded candidate.
In the second quarter of this year, West raised $1.5 million — more than both his Democratic opponents combined. Businessman Patrick Murphy raised an impressive $450,000 this past quarter; former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel followed closely behind by adding $440,000 to her war chest.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has provided West special financial help for his reelection through the committee’s “Patriot Program.” The program is described as “a tough-love incumbent protection effort designed to assist freshmen and a few longer-serving lawmakers expected to face difficult paths to reelection.”
Joanna Burgos, a spokesperson for the committee, tells The Florida Independent that Democrats “have made it no secret” that they are going to target West’s seat in 2012. However, she says “he’s done a great job so far.”
“We expect him to beat any challenger,” Burgos says. “He has been receiving great feedback.”
But strong finances might not be enough. The state of Florida will be redrawing its congressional district lines next spring, meaning West’s district could change, and any changes would most likely favor Democrats.
West’s district has long been one of the most gerrymandered in the country. The jagged district is nestled in Democratic-leaning South Florida, but two out of its last three representatives have been Republicans.
A “web-based software design and development firm” called Azavea listed the district as one of the lowest-scoring congressional districts for “compactness,” which is a measure of its fairness.
Districts like West’s led to two successful ballot initiatives that restrict the state Legislature’s ability to gerrymander districts when it meets to draw new congressional lines next spring. Until the Legislature’s new maps are revealed (and related litigation is settled), no one can know exactly where West’s district will be.
The district has mirrored national trends in the past few years. West ran with a strong reputation as a tea party darling in 2010, but two years before, Klein — a Democrat — came into office as part of the broad movement that helped President Obama carry the Sunshine State.
While West’s outlandish rhetoric certainly helped his tea party image during 2010, it’s not clear whether it will be an asset in 2012. In addition to the Wasserman Schultz incident, West has called supporters of President Obama “a threat to the gene pool” (Obama carried West’s district in 2008) and he picked a fight when he said that liberal women “neutering American men” were to blame for the country’s growing debt.
That has provided the Democratic Party with plenty of ammunition.
“Allen West has quickly confirmed the worst fears of voters in Florida’s 22nd district,” says the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Adam Hodge.
“Whether it’s voting to end Medicare or embarrassing himself by sending an inappropriate email to a House colleague,” he says, “Allen West has shown that he is unfit for serving in Congress and voters will boot him from the office next November.”
Democratic opponent Murphy has already begun presenting his candidacy as a foil to West’s “extremism.”
Ed. note: This piece was published in coordination with WNYC’s It’s a Free Country.