U.S. Representative Allen West calls his opponent a “spoiled brat.” That’s mild compared to what he says about his colleagues, terming one despicable and “not a lady” and 78 of them communists.
The 51-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel, one of two black Republicans in the House, has raised more money than any candidate for the chamber except Speaker John Boehner. West is spending much of it on personal attacks against his opponent, 29-year-old Patrick Murphy, a first-time candidate who is responding in kind.
The race in one of Florida’s most evenly divided districts is a test of whether the Tea Party’s 2010 invective can work for incumbents -- and whether such a race may be won with scant direct contact with voters. West holds few public events and hasn’t knocked on any doors, opting instead for broadsides against Murphy.
“West doesn’t want to fight it out over cuts to Medicare or Social Security in that district,” said Roger Stone, a strategist who has worked for Republican presidential candidates. “What you get instead are personal attacks.”
The race is one of only about two dozen toss-ups this year in the 435-member House, according to Cook Political Report and Rothenberg Political Report, Washington-based nonpartisan newsletters that analyze elections. About 38 percent of district voters are Republican, while Democrats account for 36 percent, state data show. Barack Obama won a majority there in 2008; Republican Governor Rick Scott carried it in 2010.
The district, into which both West and Murphy moved this year, encompasses part of Palm Beach County and two counties to the north. St. Lucie County includes the home of a New York Mets minor-league baseball team and a population that grew 45 percent since 2000, one of the state’s fastest gains. Martin County has Jupiter Island, home to golfers Greg Norman and Tiger Woods, and a population with 28 percent of residents 65 or older. Seniors account of 18 percent of Florida’s population, the nation’s highest.
District voters “don’t like the Tea Party,” Murphy said during an interview in his Palm Beach Gardens campaign office. “Put someone like Allen West as one of the leaders of the Tea Party and show that’s really the epitome of the gridlock in Congress right now, and they don’t like that.”
A month before the Nov. 6 election, West said he had yet to knock on one door in the district, which includes only about 23 percent of people he currently represents since state lawmakers drew new boundaries after the 2010 census.
This month, West’s only campaign events were the forum with Murphy in Fort Pierce and an appearance with talk-show host Mark Levin at a West Palm Beach retirement community, said Michele Hickford, West’s campaign spokesman. West introduced Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney on Oct. 7 at a rally in Port St. Lucie.
“I’ve been kind of busy, you know, in Washington D.C.,” West told reporters after the Fort Pierce event. “But I think that now we’re in that last 200-meter sprint of a nice, hard one-mile race, I’ll be out there.”
Tim Edson, West’s campaign manager, said later in an e-mail that the candidate had held 10 meetings in the new district and gone to “chambers, community organizations, charity events, business visits, senior centers and vets groups.”
Murphy’s ads feature children repeating West’s statements, including an e-mail he wrote to U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, informing her that she was vile, despicable and “not a lady.” Another Murphy ad shows West saying liberal woman are “neutering American men.”
Yet the ad that West mentioned repeatedly last week talking to reporters in Fort Pierce is one that features a caricature of him wearing boxing gloves and punching two white women. A narrator says West “socked it to seniors” by voting for Medicare changes and “whacked women” by supporting cuts to health-care spending. The ad opens with a twinkle on West’s smile that West says is intended to look as though he has a gold tooth.
West pointed to the ad when asked why he said Murphy was a “spoiled brat.”
“I don’t need to explain anything,” West said. “Why don’t you go ask him to explain me with a gold tooth punching people?”
Murphy says the ad was a surprise to him even though the independent group that ran it, American Sunrise, is funded by his father’s company, Miami-based Coastal Construction Group Inc. of South Florida. Patrick Murphy is vice president of Coastal Environmental Services, a unit of the company.
“It was just one of those things,” Murphy said. “All of the sudden, we turn on the TV and we see it.”
In response, West aired an ad last month that shows himself in military fatigues. Then, it segues to Murphy’s mug shot from a 2003 arrest on charges, later dropped, of disorderly intoxication and possessing a fake driver’s license.
Murphy countered with a spot that attempts to cast doubt on West’s military career. West retired after being reprimanded for firing a gun near the head of a detainee in Iraq during an interrogation. Military prosecutors charged West with assault. After an administrative hearing, the military didn’t court- martial West. Instead, he was relieved of his command and retired with a full pension.
Said West: “I really find it interesting that a person who’s never won a uniform wants to attack a guy that was making the decision for the safety and security of his men in combat.”
Such combat attracted a capacity crowd of more than 300 to the St. Lucie County Commission chambers in Fort Pierce last week, when the two met on the same stage for the first time. It was the only one of several forums sponsored by the St. Lucie County League of Women Voters this year at which both sides requested law officers for security, said Cathy Townsend-King, president of the group.
“This race is tense, very tense,” said Dawnella Weaver, 49, who runs a general-contracting company in Fort Pierce.
Weaver, a Republican, said some Democrats followed her before the event. One audience member was escorted out by officers after shouting an expletive at Murphy.
The campaign is just the latest volatile race for about 65 percent of voters in the area who will elect their fourth different congressman in five two-year election cycles.
Former Representative Mark Foley, a Republican, resigned in 2006 after writing explicit e-mails to underage male pages. His replacement, Democrat Tim Mahoney, lost re-election in 2008 after ABC News reported he paid a former mistress to keep her from suing. Representative Tom Rooney, a Republican who defeated Mahoney, is running in a nearby district that favors Republicans.
“We do have an interesting history in this district,” said Kevin Wagner, an associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “This race been pretty nasty, and it’s hard to imagine it getting worse.”
Murphy, who raised about $2.2 million through June 30, said he’ll spend about as much as West on television during the campaign’s final month. The Democratic National Campaign Committee has reserved about $250,000 in TV time during the final month, Formas said. The House Majority PAC, a fundraising group that supports Democrats, has reserved $1.5 million in air time, according to its website.
This year, West collected $9.9 million through June 30. That’s second-most among House candidates. Boehner, an Ohio Republican who holds the chamber’s highest rank, raised $18.2 million.
West spent $4 million on fundraising and the effort looks to be paying off. His campaign reported collecting another $4 million from July 1 to Sept. 30.
That compares with West’s race in 2008, when he spent just $555,000, about one-quarter what his opponent did, and lost by 9 percentage points. At the time, West focused on meeting voters, said Sid Dinerstein, Palm Beach County Republican chairman
“Allen didn’t have enough regard for the importance of money that first race,” Dinerstein said. “He told himself he was never going to let that happen again.”
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