This is Congressman 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 school kids.
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 redrawn 18th Congresssional 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 healthcare 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 healthcare 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.