Florida primary puts Tea Party to the test

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) is facing one of the toughest reelection battles of his nearly 20-year career on Tuesday in a primary that will test the strength of the Tea Party in Florida.

Republican voters in central Florida’s newly created 7th district will head to the polls to choose between Mica, the veteran chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and freshman Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.).

Thanks to redistricting, the two colleagues are squaring off against each other in one of the most contentious member-versus-member primaries of the year. Mica’s choice to run in the new district angered some, as he left behind a majority of his old constituents in the new 6th district.

Adams has attacked Mica as a “cheerleader” for President Obama and cast him as an insider who has been in Congress too long and spent too much. 

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Mica has countered by painting the freshman Adams, who has won the backing of the Tea Party Express, as a conservative charlatan, arguing she supported spending measures herself in the Florida State Legislature.

Whoever wins Tuesday’s primary is likely to win the seat easily in November.

The race has attracted attention from big-time players in the national Republican Party: Mica has the backing of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, while Adams has been endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Mica’s campaign is expressing confidence that the race is trending its way, touting internal polls that put him up on Adams by over 30 percent. Adams has dismissed those polls as inaccurate.

The fight between Tea Party-backed Adams and congressional veteran Mica pits two poles of the Republican Party against each other. Florida GOP consultant Alex Patton says the outcome of the primary could be an early indicator of how Tea Party candidates will fare nationwide in the general election.

“If Mica wins, it’s a referendum as to the Tea Party's strength in Florida. If Adams wins this one, I think the race is kind of a bellwether for the rest of the nation,” Patton said.

Right up to the end of the race, Adams’s campaign touted her conservative bona fides, with her spokeswoman, Lisa Boothe, asserting that Adams would be successful in Tea Party-esque terms.

“She has kept her commitment to rein in spending, repeal ObamaCare and return our great country to its constitutional roots,” she said.

Adams has also tried to turn Mica’s powerful position in Congress into a liability, hitting him for his role in the passage of a $105 billion transportation bill and a $63 billion authorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration. She’s been running ads that feature footage of President Obama thanking Mica at a White House signing ceremony for the highway bill.

But that attack might backfire, as infrastructure spending is widely favored by Republicans. A transportation industry source told The Hill on Friday that Adams's campaign was unfairly attacking road and transit spending.

"They don't understand that these transportation bills have been bipartisan for the better part of a century because they're important to our country," the source said. "It's completely ridiculous to use these as sort of a pincushion in a primary."

Mica has argued that the highway bill will be good for voters in his central Florida district, and has seized on a report about Amtrak losing $833 million on concession sales over the past 10 years to cast himself as an opponent of wasteful spending.

The fight over the transportation bill between Mica and Adams could shape future congressional decisions about spending in the sector.

Mica is likely to be term-limited out of his post as Transportation Committee chairman, even if he is reelected, but lawmakers might be hesitant to approve large spending bills for road, transit and aviation projects if they think it will be rejected by voters back home. 

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