FORT PIERCE -- Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West, the fiery tea party celebrity whose apparent defeat Tuesday was a national trophy for Democrats and liberals, isn’t ready to concede.
With West’s campaign claiming “disturbing irregularities” in the way St. Lucie County tallied ballots in the congressional District 18 race, an attorney for West filed motions Wednesday to impound ballots and voting equipment for a potential recount in St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties.
West led Democrat Patrick Murphy by fewer than 400 votes in Palm Beach County, while Murphy outdistanced West by 13,271 votes in St. Lucie.
A hearing on West’s Palm Beach County motion is scheduled for Thursday at 5 p.m. His St. Lucie County motion is scheduled for a hearing Friday, WPEC-PBS 12 reported.
West is not seeking a recount in Martin County, the third and most Republican county in District 18, where he defeated Murphy by a comfortable margin of 10,804 votes.
Unofficial returns early Wednesday showed Murphy, a 29-year-old political newcomer, leading West by 2,456 votes or 0.78 percent.
A group of absentee and provisional ballots that were counted Wednesday afternoon in Palm Beach County reduced Murphy’s margin to 2,159 votes, or 0.66 percent, in the district’s three counties.
Even with the tightening of the race Wednesday, Murphy’s lead remained large enough to avoid an automatic recount, which state law requires for races where the margin is 0.5 percent or smaller.
But West’s campaign says a recount is merited because of the way a group of St. Lucie County ballots counted around midnight Tuesday changed what had been a small West lead to a narrow Murphy advantage in district.
“The St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections office clearly ignored proper rules and procedures, and the scene at the supervisor’s office last night could only be described as complete chaos,” West campaign manager Tim Edson said Wednesday.
Asked about West’s complaint, St. Lucie County Elections Supervisor Gertrude Walker said, “I certainly don’t feel that any of it is valid…I believe that his assertions are unfounded.”
Walker said the ballots in question were from a group of more than 37,000 early votes cast in the race. Most of the early ballots were counted shortly after 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Walker said.
But she said some of the ballots were on memory cards that could not initially be uploaded onto tabulating machines. Those ballots were counted later in the evening, she said.
“I don’t have any problem recounting ballots,” said Walker, but she said she’ll have to wait for a judge’s ruling. “If it was my decision, I’d say, ‘Hey, when?’ because I have no problem. But we have to follow the law and the law does not give the [canvassing] board discretion to make a decision to recount.”
As news of Murphy’s apparent narrow victory spread Wednesday, conservatives mourned and liberals rejoiced.
“He was a highly celebrated congressman. He was among the elite in Congress in terms of vocal leadership. I think it’s a big loss. Allen was a great leader,” said Florida tea party organizer Tom Gaitens.
Gaitens was among those who unsuccessfully urged West to run for the U.S. Senate this year.
West’s national following among tea party activists and other conservatives helped him raise nearly $8 million from contributors who gave less than $200. In all, West raised more than $17 million for the race, more than any other House member this year except Speaker John Boehner and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Murphy raised about $4 million, one of the top figures for any Democratic House challenger this year. A variety of outside groups spent about $7 million on the race.
“We are thrilled at the outcome. It’s a clear statement for voters that they are rejecting Allen West’s divisiveness and tea party mentality,” said Andy Stone of House Majority PAC, a Democratic group that spent $2.4 million on negative ads and mailers against West.
Murphy declared victory on Wednesday morning while West hasn’t made any public comment on the race.
Edson, West’s campaign manager, called the race “far from decided and there is no rush to declare an outcome.”