Fla. races suggest trouble for GOP

In three key U.S. House races - two in GOP strongholds - Democrats are gaining ground.

Published October 18, 2006

Want evidence of the grim challenge facing Republicans across the country? Just turn on your TV, and you'll soon hear battle cries from the candidates vying to replace Katherine Harris in Congress, Democrat Christine Jennings and Republican Vern Buchanan.

Only a few months ago, most political observers saw this heavily Republican Sarasota-area district as a virtual lock for the GOP. But after a bruising Republican primary, it's suddenly among the hottest races in the country. This in a district that President Bush won by nearly 10 percentage points in 2004.

"The environment was a lot better two years ago for Republicans than it is today," said Buchanan, a millionaire who's trailing Jennings despite having spent more than $3.6-million of his own money to date.

Even more startling in a state where most congressional seats are drawn to ensure Republican control, the 13th Congressional District is one of three U.S. House seats in Florida that Democrats seem on the verge of winning. Florida is now a central front in the battle over whether Democrats win control of Congress.

In the 16th District, stretching from Palm Beach to Charlotte counties, Republicans are struggling to hold a seat where disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley's name remains on the ballot.

In the 22nd District, incumbent Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, is used to competitive races, but this year faces an especially treacherous landscape for Republicans and a particularly strong and well-funded Democratic challenger, state Sen. Ron Klein of Boca Raton.

Analysts see no other races as especially competitive, but don't rule out the prospect of surprises in such races as Tampa Bay's 9th District, where Republican Gus Bilirakis is competing for his father's seat against Democrat Phyllis Busansky.

On paper, Vern Buchanan should be a shoo-in to succeed Harris, who opted to run for U.S. Senate rather than seek re-election. He's a businessman running for a seat where only one in three registered voters is a Democrats.

But Buchanan is running in a district where polls suggest 60 percent of the voters see the country heading in the wrong direction and where many voters say they were already fed up with controversies surrounding Harris. President Bush returns to Sarasota Oct. 24 for the first time since 9/11 to campaign for Buchanan, and it's not at all clear that's especially helpful to keeping the seat Republican.

"I haven't made up my mind, but if President Bush is coming to campaign for him, that sure doesn't make we want to vote for Vern Buchanan. It turns me the other way, because I do not like what he's doing to this country," said Lorraine Dubee, a retiree in Sarasota, one of the more than one in five district voters not registered with either party.

Buchanan narrowly emerged from a crowded and nasty Republican primary, where opponents trashed his business background. They hit him over business lawsuits, about the company he founded, American Speedy Printing, going bankrupt days after he stepped down; about him owning offshore reinsurance companies; about a lengthy $1-million tax dispute with the IRS.

Buchanan, 55 and worth more than $50-million, says the attacks on his business record are unfair and that his wealth ensures he'll be an independent voice in Washington. He said he won the tax dispute with the IRS and had little to do with the bankruptcy at American Speedy.

"People are so tired of the negativity, they want to know where we stand on the issues," he said. His business baggage, however, has taken a toll and prompted analysts to question whether even millions of spending by Buchanan is enough to overcome his obstacles.

"Candidates matter and campaigns matter. The destiny of a district is not always determined by its past electoral margins," said Amy Walter of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "It's almost like we're watching the perfect storm come together here: a flawed candidate trying to replace a polarizing and controversial incumbent, in a time when Congress' approval ratings are at their lowest in a long time, and scandal is on front pages."

In Christine Jennings, the retired chief of a community bank, Democrats have a candidate who talks often about fiscal responsibility. She and Buchanan have each chaired the John and Mable Ringling Museum board of trustees, and she used to be Buchanan's banker. As her TV spots bash Buchanan for his business background, Buchanan likes to remind people of their banking relationship.

"She knew more about me than 99 percent of the people in the community," Buchanan said. "She knows that I was credible because the first thing bankers have to look for is character."

Jennings, 60, stands by the attacks on Buchanan's business record and said that as a banker she looked largely at his collateral and ability to repay loans.

For Buchanan, a bigger weapon than his checkbook could be the state GOP's far superior voter mobilization efforts, which by some estimates could give at least a 3 percentage point advantage to any Republican. There's that, and the hope that a lot of disenchanted Gulf Coast Republicans come home by Nov. 7. He needs people like Sylvia Martinez.

"A lot of people around here are kind of getting sick and tired of Republicans lately," the Bradenton Republican said, while loading her bags outside a Target. "But I believe in sticking with your party."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or 727893-8241. For much more breaking political news check out blogs.tampabay.com/buzz.