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U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite faces a challenger's attack - from the right.
By JOHN FRANK, Times Staff Writer
Published November 18, 2007
BROOKSVILLE - As the 2008 presidential primary elections loom weeks away, campaign propaganda is beginning to dominate the airwaves and fill mailboxes.
But here in the 5th Congressional District, voters are learning about a different ballot contest, well before the traditional campaign season begins.
It's a race for the U.S. House of Representatives in an area that hasn't seen a good race in years - not since the Republican-controlled state Legislature redrew the boundaries to favor the GOP, which wrestled control of the seat from Democrats in a close 2002 contest.
Republican Ginny Brown-Waite, a former state senator, won that election and every one since.
Now in her third term, Brown-Waite represents this sprawling west-central Florida territory that touches eight counties, including Hernando and Pasco. In political pundit lingo, it's known as "safe Republican," meaning Brown-Waite sleeps easy at night and doesn't need to worry about a constant re-election effort. The Democratic opposition the Brooksville resident faced in the last two elections proved more amusing than substantive, and no contender for next year has emerged.
But this new challenger could be different. His name is Jim King, and he's running as a Republican.
Instead of criticizing Brown-Waite for out-of-touch conservative stances, as Democrats have in recent years, he's criticizing her for not being conservative enough. It's the first time Brown-Waite has faced competition for the GOP nod.
"I'll go head-to-head with her on the issues," said King, 52, who lives in Land O'Lakes. "She talks a good game, but she doesn't back it up."
To caution, King is considered by some as a fringe candidate with little credibility. He's run for office at least four times, under four different banners: as an independent in 1992, Democrat in 1994, Reform in 2000 and Republican in 2000. He switched midway through the race.
From her advantageous perch as an incumbent, Brown-Waite dismisses her Republican primary challenger.
"Is he a Republican?" she asks. "I think he's a little delusional."
Still, his tack - running to the right of the sometimes-moderate Brown-Waite - introduces an intriguing strategy that could upset the balance of power in a solidly conservative district.
"It exposes her in a way that she hasn't faced," said Dan Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida, noting King's chances are still slim. "It certainly drains much-needed resources that would keep at bay Democratic challengers."
King's campaign is attracting attention because it's already started. For weeks, he has run minute-long advertisements on conservative and Christian radio that attack Congress as a whole for working "less than 105 days in session while troops struggle 24/7 in hostile conditions and unbearable heat."
Soon he will debut 30-second spots on cable television that harp on issues like improving veterans' health care and strengthening border security.
"Congress belongs in Washington when (we are) at war," he said in an interview this month before traveling to Washington for a service at Arlington National Cemetery and various political meetings on Capitol Hill. "So long as we are in a war (they) declared, they have a job to do and they haven't done it."
King pledges the paid media campaign will continue through next fall as he tries to make his name recognizable among voters. He said he intends to raise $1-million to unseat Brown-Waite.
Federal campaign finance records show he has brought in $40,900 through Sept. 30, including a $5,000 personal contribution. On the reports, King oddly lists no individual contributions, writing instead that his money comes from 1,400-plus individual donors who gave no more than $50. King said he would meet with political action committees in Washington but will not take PAC money.
If the past is any indicator, his lofty fundraising goal is unreachable. In 2000, during his Reform-Party-turned-Republican bid for the 5th District seat, he pulled in $215,000 and reported that $180,000 came from contributions under the $200 disclosure mark, meaning he didn't list donors.
So far this year, he's spent about $7,000, mostly on expenses related to advertising. The bulk is the cost of ads in small and niche publications such as the Veteran Voice, an Orange Park-based monthly newspaper aimed at former military personnel. He also paid a New Port Richey company named Cheap TV Spots $99 to produce his commercial.
In contrast, more than $259,000 sits in Brown-Waite's campaign bank account. She hauled in $177,000 in the last quarter alone, largely from PAC donations, Federal Election Commission records show.
King goes on the offensive
Brown-Waite, 64, has built her support largely by appealing to retirees and veterans, both rich resources in the district that reward her politically. Her top issues: veterans' health care, immigration and national security, she said.
She has worked to build a record of accomplishments in these areas, pushing for money for outpatient veterans clinics in The Villages and Brooksville, and introducing a much-noted bill cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities, where undocumented immigrants receive government services without fear of deportation.
Ask King for his priorities and he strangely recites a replica of Brown-Waite's agenda.
"He must have been in a cave someplace for the last five years not to know I'm the go-to person for veterans issues," Brown-Waite said.
King, a retired adjunct professor in the medical field, counters that veterans still endure long waiting periods for appointments and that clinics have inadequate equipment.
"She's staked claim to (those issues), but she's failed miserably," he said. "If she knew anything about them, she would stay in Washington and do something about it."
His answer hints at a larger discontent with Congress in general. King, who went to Afghanistan as a civilian in 2001 but is not a military veteran, pledged to say in Washington - near where he grew up and called home for a long time - until his goals are accomplished.
"My fight is more with Congress in general than it is with her," he acknowledged. "But she's never been challenged on her conservative voting record."
The American Conservative Union gave Brown-Waite an 88 percent rating on its issues in 2006, but King condemns her for supporting Planned Parenthood this year when she voted in favor of a huge appropriations bill that lumped health spending with veterans appropriations.
Her office said she never votes against veterans and clarified that the health bill gave money to "family planning" organizations, but not directly to the liberal-leaning group.
Brown-Waite's advisers also take issue with attacks on her conservative leanings, a signal that highlights what will likely be the foremost issue in this GOP primary campaign.
"She's very independent," spokesman Charlie Keller said. "It's not moderate; it's just forceful for looking out for her district."
John Frank can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 754-6114.
[Last modified November 17, 2007, 19:03:36]