Fight for Fla. Rep. Allen West's seat may draw more Democrats

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 3, 2012 

The Democrats vying to replace departing Rep. Allen West from his 22nd congressional seat — businessman Patrick Murphy and former West Palm Beach mayor Lois Frankel — may miss the retired Army colonel and tea party crowd pleaser because his rants on Fox News fired up the left and delivered dollars to their campaign coffers.

But the soon-to-be- redrawn congressional district — absent “bogeyman” West — has also perked the political ears of other Democrats, likely setting up a Democratic primary dogfight this summer with multiple candidates.

The proposed 22nd district is a better fit for Democrats, said Robin Rorapaugh, a Democratic consultant who briefly ran for the seat after former Wilton Manors mayor Jim Stork dropped out in 2004.

“Needing a bogeyman to raise money is not as crucial,” he said. “It just upped the ante on the primary battle.”

The dynamics of the race for the 22nd congressional district, which straddles Broward and Palm Beach counties, dramatically changed Tuesday when U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney announced he would move his campaign one seat to the north. West then announced he would run in Rooney’s 16th congressional district, which includes part of Palm Beach and is friendlier to a Republican.

Adam Hasner, who was trailing in the polls in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, will now run in West’s current district, which in part overlaps with his former state legislative district. Hasner, a Jewish Republican, announced West’s endorsement Wednesday and he tried to portray himself as someone who will reach out to Democrats in the district.

Members of Congress do not have to live in their district (West lives in Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’ district).

Longtime Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom, a term-limited Democrat, said Wednesday he may jump into the race. And Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs, a Pompano Beach Democrat, is also thinking of joining the scrum.

A crowded primary could give Frankel the leg up as the only female and Jewish candidate in the bagel-belt district, but that open seat may tempt Rodstrom.

“There are opportunities like this that only come along every so often with the incumbent out of the race and new district boundaries certainly present an opportunity for me,” said Rodstrom.

The longtime politician, who is married to Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Charlotte Rodstrom, would have access to two key groups of donors: entities that do business with the county and the financial sector. He works at the Sterne Agee brokerage firm .

Jacobs also has ties to firms that do business with the county and said Wednesday she is “seriously” considering running for the seat. She has a couple more years to go before she faces term limits.

Those not planning to run include former Rep. Ron Klein, who lost to West in 2010, and Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, who was re-elected by a landslide on Tuesday.

A sign of how fast the political world spun Tuesday: Seiler said the first call he received about running in the West-less district came while he was standing at a poll holding a Seiler for mayor sign.

It’s unclear, but bets are that West’s move to another district will mean less Democratic donor dollars flowing to Frankel, Murphy and other potential Democrats who campaign for the seat.

Both Frankel and Murphy routinely quoted West in their fundraising pleas, with each collecting more than $1 million from donors. West’s warchest is more than $6 million.

Murphy had a West year-in-review video set to sinister music and black-and-white images repeating some of West’s most blogged about quotes including calling DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz “vile”, comparing the Democratic Party to a Nazi propagandist and saying “gay marriage is an oxymoron.” Frankel called West a “tea party cult figure” and “one of the most radical, right-wing members we’ve ever seen in Congress” in recent fundraising emails.

West was, in part, why Emily’s List, a powerful national pro-choice group, backed Frankel. Ditto for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which put the race on its red-to-blue priority list. Prominent donors, who salivated at the opportunity to defeat West, were throwing dollars toward the Democrats and hosting fundraisers from Seattle to Martha’s Vineyard.

West’s current congressional district has long been a swing district. Klein, a former state Democratic lawmaker, ousted moderate Republican Clay Shaw in 2006 amid voters’ anger about Iraq. West lost to Klein in 2008 when voters in the district overwhelmingly favored Obama. But then in 2010, amid a national GOP rout, West beat Klein in a district that was closely split between Democratic and Republican registered voters.

This time, it’s the once-a-decade process of redistricting that is shaking up the unpredictable district.

Whether it was ultimately the realities of redistricting or that West didn’t have allies in Tallahassee among the leaders drawing the maps, West had little choice but to find a friendlier congressional district or face likely defeat.

The House’s proposed new district would be 48 percent Democrat, 26 percent Republican and 26 percent independents or no party affiliation. Currently, it’s almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

Some Democrats expressed surprise that West and Rooney would announce the switch now before the Legislature had finalized the maps that are certain to face court challenges. But waiting months until the lines are certain would leave little time for any Republican candidate to mount a viable campaign against long odds.

West’s Democratic opponents argue that the fiery Republican was not the sole reason donors opened up their wallets.

Eric Johnson, Murphy’s campaign consultant, said his 28-year-old candidate attracted donors who want a fresh face in Washington.

Maybe, but Murphy still rails against West.

“We will continue to target Allen West,” Johnson said. “Redistricting isn’t over.”

Could Murphy or even Frankel consider shifting their campaign further north to compete against West?

When asked, Johnson wouldn’t rule it out: “We believe the maps are far from set. We continue to monitor redistricting closely.”

Frankel dismissed the idea in a post on her website Tuesday night.

“Allen West just announced that he is cutting and running from a fight with me — he is retreating to another district. Mr. West had to see the writing on the wall — after spending his time in Washington practicing his extreme tea-party politics, he lost touch with our district’s values.

“Let me tell you one thing: I am staying right here in the 22nd Congressional district.”

Miami Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this article.

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