Trio of linked districts could make Florida pivotal to House takeover

SARASOTA, Fla. – Republican House candidate Vern Buchanan laced up his rented hot pink and yellow shoes, straightened his ailing back and rolled the heavy ball down the lane. Veering too far left, it caromed off a bumper, and an otherwise-gutterball knocked over seven of 10 pins.

SARASOTA, Fla. – Republican House candidate Vern Buchanan laced up his rented hot pink and yellow shoes, straightened his ailing back and rolled the heavy ball down the lane. Veering too far left, it caromed off a bumper, and an otherwise-gutterball knocked over seven of 10 pins.

Just as he had intended, Buchanan joked: “That’s that turn I had on the end.”

This campaign season, Buchanan and fellow Florida Republicans are facing another late turn of events on which they had no designs. What have been the top two battleground districts in the state – Buchanan’s 13th and Rep. Clay Shaw’s (R) 22nd – both border former Rep. Mark Foley’s (R) south Florida district, and the month-old scandal surrounding Foley’s communications with House pages has thrown a wrench in the final month of the campaign, Buchanan said.

Foley’s 16th District, now a tight battle between Democrat Tim Mahoney and Republican Joe Negron, lies in south Florida between the Sarasota-based 13th on the west coast and the Fort Lauderdale-based 22nd on the east coast. The Democrats hope to turn the three of them into a blue belt across the peninsula, chipping away at the Republicans’ 18-7 House advantage in this very purple battleground state.

The three would go a long way toward a possible Democratic majority in Congress, and Florida could rival states like Indiana and Ohio, which have long been considered prime pickup territory for the Democrats, as an impact state in 2006.

Two years ago, no race in Florida was decided by fewer than double digits. This year, as many as five seats could be in play, including long shots in Rep. Ric Keller’s (R) 8th District and retiring Rep. Michael Bilirakis’s (R) 9th.

According to a poll released yesterday by Buchanan’s Democratic opponent, Christine Jennings, the 13th is likely to flip in two weeks. Jennings leads Buchanan 52-41 in the poll, which mirrors a previous Jennings poll that had her up 50-38.

Both polls came out since the Foley scandal broke in late September. Buchanan actually broaches the Foley issue unsolicited while talking with reporters, saying it makes things tougher for him with the story frequently in the local media.

The same day he bowled alongside Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) at Sarasota Lanes here last week, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune broke the story about the clergyman who allegedly abused Foley.

“It’s more local because I share a county with him,” said Buchanan, adding that the Foley scandal killed the momentum he felt coming out of the House Republican Conference in Washington in late September: “I thought we had a positive session, and unfortunately instead of talking about that, we end up talking about the Mark Foley thing.”

While Buchanan faces Jennings in an open-seat battle to replace Senate candidate Rep. Katherine Harris (R), Shaw has been ensconced in his seat for 26 years. And while Buchanan calls his race vital to Republicans maintaining control of the House, Shaw shrugs at the notion that Republicans need a strong showing in Florida to stay in power.

In fact, Shaw said he doesn’t even understand why there is such a fuss about this race. After he won by 600 votes in 2000, redistricting bolstered the Republican advantage in his district. He beat a well-funded challenger 61-38 the following election and won by 28 points in 2004.

Still, a Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel poll released Saturday shows Shaw ahead of Democrat Ron Klein by a slim margin, 48-43, with a 4 percent margin of error. And despite the redistricting, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) won by the same 52-48 margin then-Vice President Al Gore carried in the 2000 presidential election.

“I’m delighted to think that national politics is going to be determined by this district, because I’m going to win,” Shaw said. “It’s closer than I’d like it to be, but we’re not going to have to stay up till 1 o’clock in the morning to find out who won.”

One shouldn’t mistake Shaw’s verbal confidence for over-confidence, however. Klein has raised the third-most money among House challengers at $3.2 million, and Shaw has been a step ahead of him almost every quarter, bringing in $3.9 million.

Shaw has also grown fond of invoking his work with former President Clinton in the 1990s to illustrate his bipartisan credentials.

With Clinton in town for a Klein fundraiser on Friday, Shaw ran a radio ad noting his work with the ex-president. In a debate Friday in Palm Beach, Shaw seemed to be almost longing for Clinton’s tenure, repeatedly bringing up the bills he passed and Clinton signed.

“Tonight, President Clinton is coming to town to help his political party,” Shaw said at the debate, turning to Klein. “Ron, give him my best.”

Klein said Shaw can say what he wants about the former president but that it’s simply an effort to “minimize the nasty partisan environment” currently in Washington. He said he mentioned Shaw’s strategy to Clinton at a rally several hours after the debate.

“He said, ‘Well tell him that’s all fine and good, but look what happens when Republicans get in total control: they run the country off the edge,’” Klein said. “So I don’t exactly consider that to be a badge of honor.”

The 13th District isn’t as evenly split, with President Bush winning 56-43 in 2004. Harris has won by 10 points each of the past two elections, but neither included a Democratic opponent who could compete with her financially.

Jennings, for that matter, isn’t close to competing financially with Buchanan either. With a net worth reported at more than $50 million, he has plugged nearly $4.5 million of his own money into the campaign. With $4.9 million in receipts, his was the richest House campaign in the country, including incumbents, after the third quarter.

Buchanan’s self-funding has made the race to replace Harris is the second-most expensive in the country, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with Shaw’s race third.

Jennings raised a comparatively paltry $1.3 million by the end of the third quarter. But with the support of groups like Emily’s List and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, she said she is more than able to compete in the current environment.

“If the incumbents don’t know it and if the people running this country don’t realize how distressed the American people are with a do-nothing Congress, I don’t know what it would take,” Jennings said.