For 6 House incumbents, it's a shoo-in
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Democrats hoping to take control of the U.S. House won't get much help in Florida.
After Friday's filing deadline for congressional candidates, Republicans look well-positioned to win two newly created seats. They also contend they have a real shot at defeating an incumbent Democrat from the North Suncoast, Karen Thurman of Dunnellon.
Thurman's race in a district redrawn to help her Republican challenger, state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville, will be widely watched. It is ranked among the 35 most competitive congressional races in the country.
Most Tampa Bay area incumbents have it easy this year.
Largo Republican C.W. Bill Young, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, drew no opponent and was automatically re-elected. Democrat Jim Davis of Tampa and Republican Adam Putnam of Bartow also are among the six Florida incumbents automatically winning re-election.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis of Palm Harbor is a strong favorite to win re-election. He faces a write-in candidate and Democrat Chuck Kalogianis, whose former job as a male stripper made headlines when he ran unsuccessfully for the Legislature in 1998.
Young, who has served since 1970, said Friday he has no timetable for retiring.
"I have always taken it one term at a time," said Young, whose district no longer includes most of southern St. Petersburg.
That area is now represented by Davis, who had raised about $263,000 and was walking neighborhoods where he had never run before. But on Friday, Davis' expected challenger did not qualify by petition to appear on the ballot.
"I am surprised that I don't have an opponent," Davis said. "I had expected it and planned for it."
His opponent was surprised, too. Phillip Isaacson, a Republican cigar salesman, spent months collecting signatures to qualify by petition. But he said the state Division of Elections told him this week it didn't have time to count all of his petitions.
"I could have handled losing," Isaacson said. "At least I would have played the game. This way, they took me out of the game without letting me play."
In the House, Democrats need to pick up six seats nationwide to win a majority. Most analysts who are handicapping individual races see that as unlikely.
But Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a political newsletter, said growing concerns about corporate fraud and falling stock prices could become a factor.
"If you look at the broad national environment, that is now changing in a way that would suggest Democrats have a chance to take the House," Rothenberg said.
Florida's Republican-controlled Legislature hasn't made it easy for Democrats, though. Lawmakers this year redrew district lines to all but ensure that Republicans increase their current 15-8 advantage in the Florida delegation.
Florida's population gains added two new congressional districts in Florida, bringing the total to 25. Republican legislators drew those new districts with an eye toward electing state House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, and state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami. They also strengthened most other Republican seats.
Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who infuriated Democrats when she certified George W. Bush's Florida win, has raised more than $2-million to win a seat in the Sarasota area. She has a primary opponent and four Democrats to beat, but they are political novices with relatively small campaign accounts.
Florida House Speaker Feeney, who wanted lawmakers to select electors for Bush when court challenges threated his win, is favored to win his newly created central Florida district. His Democratic challenger is trial lawyer Harry Jacobs, who unsuccessfully challenged nearly 10,000 votes in Seminole County.
Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale faces Democrat Carol Roberts, a Palm Beach County commissioner who appeared on national television screens as a member of the canvassing board interpreting dimpled and hanging chads.
Davis of Tampa said even without an election, he will spend a lot of energy this summer in new areas of his district. Lawmakers, in an effort to shore up Republican strength in Young's district, shoved predominantly Democratic precincts in southern St. Petersburg into Davis' district.
"I've got a lot of work to do, with 80,000 new people in south St. Pete and roughly 30,000 people in Bradenton," Davis said. "I'm just going to proceed as I had intended to do."
For his part, Young said he will continue his work in Washington as if those former constituents remained in his district.
"I will still be representing them and taking care of that part of the district that I lost," said Young.
The toughest battle in the state is expected to be for Thurman's seat. Florida Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas gives Brown-Waite a 50-50 chance of winning. Brown-Waite has a lightly regarded GOP primary challenger, Don Gessner. Also running are one write-in candidate and two former Reform Party activists, Jack Gargan and Brian Moore, running without party affiliation.
Brown-Waite boasted earlier this week about raising more than $500,000 and cited support from Republicans, conservative Democrats and independents.
Thurman has plenty of advantages. With more than $1-million already raised and no primary challenge, she is free to explore new parts of the district, such as Lake County.
"We're doing what we usually do," Thurman said. "We're going out and introducing ourselves in the new areas, making contacts, giving them our credentials, getting feedback as to what the concerns are."
-- Staff writers Bill Adair, David Karp and Jim Ross contributed to this report.
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