Gizzi on Politics September 1, 2008

Watching Sunshine State Returns In Denver

Walking out of the Pepsi Center after Hillary Clinton’s convention address, Florida Delegate Maria Carter and I were talking about her state’s U.S. House primaries that day. If some of the Florida delegation did not seem to be paying close attention to addresses earlier in the evening, Carter explained, “It’s because a lot of them are either running for office or involved in campaigns at home. And there are a lot of important races.”  

She wasn’t exaggerating. In five U.S. House districts held by Republicans, Democrats have launched well-funded campaigns with heavyweight candidates. In the Miami-based 21st and 22nd Districts, there are first-ever strong challenges to brother Republican Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart.  

Former Hialeah Democratic Mayor Raul Martinez will oppose Lincoln and former State Democratic Chairman Joe Garcia will take on Mario.  

In the 13th District (Sarasota), there will be a rematch between Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings. Two years ago, auto dealer Buchanan edged bank president Jennings by about 300 votes in a race the Democrat refused to concede and whose results she tried unsuccessfully to get the House to challenge.  

In the 8th District (Orlando), Republican Rep. Ric Keller had an uncomfortably close race in ’06 and will be a major Democratic target in ’08. Democrats have nominated their most left-wing of candidates, Alan Grayson, rather than ’06 standard-bearer Charlie Stuart.  

Another conservative stalwart, Rep. Tom Feeney, finds himself a major target of the left in the 24th District (Brevard Orange Counties). In what will surely be one of the major ideological showdowns of the year, former House Republican Study Committee Chairman Feeney will square off against Democrat Suzanne Kosmas, who opposed tax cuts and a ban on partial-birth abortions while in the state legislature.  

By far the most closely watched congressional primary of either party in Florida took place in the 16th District (Palm Beach), which Democrat Tim Mahoney won in ‘06 after scandal forced Republican Rep. (1994-2006) Mark Foley to resign in the last week of September. Mahoney is almost universally regarded as one of the most vulnerable Democratic House members up for election. So it was no surprise to find three heavyweight GOPers, conservatives all, duking it out for the right to challenge him.  

The winner by a hair was Tom Rooney, attorney and U.S. Army veteran. The grandson of legendary Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney edged out State Rep. Gayle Harrell. Conservatives were split on the race, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich weighing in for Harrell and the House Conservative Fund backing Rooney. Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and State Party Chairman Jim Grier, both of whom usually stay out of primary fights, made rare endorsements of Rooney in the twilight days of the race. Their backing was probably pivotal to his winning nomination by about 1% of the vote.  

The third candidate in the race was Hal Valeche, also considered a conservative.  

In the lone district in which a Republican lawmaker is retiring, the succession to seven-term Rep. Dave Weldon appears to be a slam dunk. State Sen. Bill Posey, one of the most respected conservative leaders in Tallahassee, was endorsed early on by most of the other GOPers mentioned for the race. Posey won nomination in the Cape Canaveral-area 15th District with 77% of the vote and raised more money than all the other candidates in both primaries combined. 

Alaska Rivals Louisiana

Riding into the Democratic National Convention on Denver’s popular “light rail” above-ground subway, I spoke to Alaska State Rep. Lindsey Holmes on Tuesday about her state’s primary that day. Noting the ethical controversies swirling around Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and GOP Rep. Don Young, Holmes remarked that “Alaska has the second-most interesting politics in the nation after Louisiana.” 

Stevens, 84 years old and the longest-serving Republican senator in history, is under indictment on seven felony counts related to acceptance of $250,000 worth of repairs on his home. But the man known almost universally in the Land of the Midnight Sun as “Uncle Ted” rolled up 63% of the vote against six opponents.  

Polls continue to show Stevens running behind Democrat Mark Begich, mayor of Anchorage and son of the late Rep. (1970-72) Nick Begich. Stevens has sought a speedy trial and will go before a jury in the Washington, D.C., area September 24. Longtime Stevens-watchers insist that even if convicted, the stubborn senator will try to remain on the ballot through November.  

Young, Alaska’s other “prince of pork,” has also been mentioned frequently in connection with the FBI scandal investigation, but the 36-year lawmaker has not yet been indicted for anything. Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell, who had the strong endorsement of Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, attacked Young in the primary as a congressman from the past and denounced his reputation as a conduit for federal largess to the state.  

Young proudly ran on his record and attacked Parnell’s support from the conservative Club for Growth. The congressman may also have gained from an unusually strong performance in a televised debate with Parnell. 

With counties that vote mostly by paper ballot yet to be counted, Young held a lead of 152 votes, or 45.5% to 45.3%, over Parnell. The challenger may also have been hurt by a third candidate, State Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux of Kodiak, whose 9% of the vote could well have been anti-Young votes siphoned away from Parnell. The lieutenant governor also might have suffered from recent controversy surrounding Palin. The governor is accused of trying to deny a promotion to her sister’s former husband, a state trooper who has been charged in newspaper reports with moose-poaching and firing a taser gun at his nephew.  

“Second most interesting politics in the nation after Louisiana.” Indeed.

Duncan to Stay on as RNC Chairman

In past election cycles, the Republican nominee for President has often named his own operative as chairman of the Republican National Committee. But, in the more recent mold of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain is going to leave the sitting party in place — at least through November.

That’s what Mike Duncan told me last week. When I asked if he would stay on as RNC chairman, Kentucky GOPer Duncan replied: “Sure. I was elected.” (Under a controversial arrangement put through the RNC by the Bush White House in 2006, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez became “general chairman” of the party and Duncan became full-time chairman — amid growing complaints about the unclear nature of the dual-chairman arrangement, Martinez left the party post after less than a year and Duncan became the lone RNC head.)

Actually, Duncan has what he calls a “wonderful working relationship” with McCain and his campaign high command. McCain and his team pointed out that the RNC has outraised the Democratic National Committee by more than $100 million so far — a sharp contrast to the whopping seven-to-one spending advantage that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee now enjoys over its Republican counterpart.

The party chairman added that McCain has done an outstanding job in helping party activists (with whom he has long clashed on issues ranging from illegal immigration to campaign finance regulation) raise money. According to Duncan, McCain has appeared at “more than 100 events” to raise money for the RNC, state parties, and his own campaign fund.

The news of a well-funded Republican apparatus comes as McCain is prepared to accept federal matching funds for the fall campaign with the accompanying spending limits. With more than three million small donors nationwide, Obama has waived the federal funding and thus has no limits on what he can spend in the fall.   


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