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.
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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.
“I will work with members of both parties to find solutions to our pressing problems,” Southerland says in a radio ad, “but I will not sell out my core beliefs for a cheap political hit.”
Two years ago, Republicans took 63 House seats from Democrats, including two others in Florida besides West’s and Southerland’s. The tea party was riding high with strong anti-government sentiments and the outspoken freshman class pursued a budget-slashing agenda that left few areas untouched.
Now Democrats are trying to use those moves against them, striving to turn the election into a referendum on the tea party. One of the most visible battlegrounds is Florida’s 18th district, which includes Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties. West, who had represented the former 22nd congressional district in Broward and Palm Beach counties, moved to the 18th after redistricting.
Murphy has been attacking West for voting for a budget blueprint authored by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who is Mitt Romney’s running mate, that would cut trillions from the federal budget and overhaul Medicare into a voucher-type program. Murphy has also been trying to highlight West’s rhetoric, casting him as a hothead. West has taken steps to project a softer image — including the ad showing him inside a classroom — and talks about finding solutions, but doesn’t go as far as to play up reaching across the aisle.
West says he and Republicans are trying to preserve Medicare for future generations and accuses President Barack Obama of cutting $716 billion out of it as part of the healthcare law. (The Ryan budget incorporates those same cuts/savings, but Republicans aren’t mentioning that.)
The competing messages about Medicare, Social Security and who is responsible for the poor economy make for a muddy picture and explain why the 2012 election will likely not be a so-called wave election in which one party dominates.
“Voters don’t know whether to blame Obama’s party or the tea party for dysfunction in Washington,” said Wasserman of Cook Political Report. “In 2010 it was pretty easy to assign blame because Democrats controlled the White House and Congress. In 2006, it was easy because Republicans controlled the White House and Congress. Now it’s as split as can be. You don’t have unilateral blame and you don’t have unilateral momentum.”
Democrats need to gain at least 25 seats to recapture the House, but most experts say they will fall well short. In Florida, Democrats will likely see a return of former Rep. Alan Grayson of Orlando, who is a reverse image of the blunt-talking, partisan West and was defeated in 2010. Grayson is running in one of two new districts Florida gained from the once-a-decade reapportionment.
Republican Todd Long is trying to highlight Grayson’s antics, much like Murphy is with West. “Screaming isn’t going to help anyone’s life,” he said in an interview. “People want someone with a solution.”
Democrats also contend they have a chance of unseating Rivera in Miami and Buchanan in Sarasota, both of whom have been dogged by ethics investigations, though both are tenacious campaigners. In a Broward-Palm Beach County district, Democrat Lois Frankel is slightly favored over Hasner. In Central Florida, Democrat Val Demings, a former Orlando police chief, is creating buzz against incumbent Republican Dan Webster.
Even if Democrats improve the imbalance in Florida’s delegation — the current breakdown is 19 Republicans and six Democrats — it’s unlikely to do much in the national picture.
Republican hopes of taking the majority in the Senate, with a net gain of four seats, have somewhat faded for a variety of reasons, including weak candidates and the strength of Obama in states such as Ohio.
Republicans desperately worked to force Todd Aiken out of the Senate race in Missouri following his comments about “legitimate rape,” but he refused. Now incumbent Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill is favored.
Republican hopes have also faded in part due to Florida, where two-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson holds a steady lead on Connie Mack. Nelson voted for every major initiative under Obama but is trying to appeal to the middle — a longtime campaign tactic of his.
“Remember in the old days where partisan politics stopped at the water’s edge?” Nelson said at an event last month in the Panhandle. “On anything that had to do with foreign affairs or national defense, it was always bipartisan. When I went in as a young congressman, that’s the way it was. A lot of that’s gone now and we’ve got to get it back.”
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @learyreports.