Allen West is still surprised that Florida’s voters have kicked him out of Congress after only two years. “Why would anyone want to get rid of a person that is born and raised in the inner city, third of four generations in the military—just an American success story?” asks West, from the living room of his Palm Beach Gardens home overlooking a pool and golf course. “I’m not some guy that came from a rich political family or anything like that,” he says. “I’m just an everyday guy, but I have a passion for my country.”
Just a few months ago, West was a Republican hero. A former Army officer who came to Washington in the wave of successful Tea Party candidates in 2010, he quickly made a name for himself as a blunt spokesman for the right wing. His strangle-the-government rhetoric and abrasive style was in tune with a party in the mood for a fight. He called President Obama “probably the dumbest person walking around in America” and said scores of Democrats in Congress were secretly members of the Communist Party. He won a national following among conservatives, who talked about him as a possible vice presidential candidate.
“If you could personify the Tea Party movement, it would be Allen West,” says Billie Tucker, a prominent Florida Tea Party organizer. When it came time to run for reelection, West raised $17 million—more than any House candidate except House Speaker John Boehner—most of it from outside the state. He seemed assured of a second term. Back home, though, West’s habit of testing the limits of civility and his zero-sum view of politics weren’t wearing nearly so well.
To improve his chances at winning reelection, he chose to leave his Fort Lauderdale-area home and run in a more Republican-friendly district about 100 miles north. Bob Crowder, a well-liked Republican sheriff, challenged him in the primary. When the two crossed paths one day in June, the sheriff extended a hand to the congressman. “No, thanks,” West said, turning away. His refusal to shake hands with a member of his own party made a bad first impression in his adopted district.
Things got uglier after West won the nomination and faced Democrat Patrick Murphy, a 29-year-old novice. West belittled Murphy as a “spoiled brat” and bombarded voters with a TV spot featuring a mug shot of Murphy taken after an arrest for disorderly intoxication outside a Miami club when he was 19. (The charges were dropped.) In response, Murphy attacked West’s Army career, which ended in an abrupt retirement after he was reprimanded for firing a gun near the head of an Iraqi detainee.
Murphy won by 1,900 votes. In Martin County, the district’s Republican stronghold, West received 4,800 fewer votes than Mitt Romney, while Murphy outperformed Obama by 3,700 votes, a sign that a significant number of Republicans split their ticket. It didn’t help that in the final weeks of the race, Crowder, West’s spurned GOP rival, endorsed Murphy. West believes he lost because voters accustomed to pandering politicians couldn’t handle his directness. “I just talked the truth. I think that a lot of people maybe are not comfortable hearing the truth.”
Another possibility is that his rapid rise and fall coincided with the public’s equally brief enthusiasm for the mad-as-hell ethos of the Tea Party. When West was elected two years ago, 40 percent of voters nationwide said they supported the movement, according to exit polls. This year, support was down to 21 percent. West was one of several members of the Tea Party caucus who lost reelection to the House. “Anger only gets you halfway there,” says Gene Ulm, West’s pollster. “You have to have an agenda. And if the Tea Party is going to make the transition and be impactful, focusing that agenda is what needs to be done.”