By Molly K. Hooper - 10/28/12 10:00 AM EDT
A married couple who serve in Congress are fighting for their political lives thousands of miles away from each other.
Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) and his wife, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), are both in competitive races this fall.
The husband-and-wife team usually coast to victory. But this year is different.
Mack is an underdog in his contest against Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Independent political handicappers, including The Hill, rated the race as “Leans Democratic.”
The Senate hopeful is competing with $1.5 million cash on hand (having raised $5.46 million), compared to Nelson’s $6.5 million cash on hand left from his $12 million war chest, according to the latest Federal Election Commission filings. Nearly $20 million has been spent by outside groups on the Senate race in the Sunshine State.
Mack, who is attempting to win the Senate seat his father once occupied, got some good news on Friday.
A new Tampa Bay Times/Bay News 9 poll of registered voters among the independent-heavy I-4 corridor showed Mack within the 4-percentage point margin of error, trailing Nelson 47 to 44 percent. Mason-Dixon Research & Polling conducted the survey on Oct. 22-24 with 625 registered Florida voters.
Meanwhile, Bono Mack, the widow of former congressman and entertainer Sonny Bono, is facing a resurgent challenger.
A little more than a week ago, the nonpartisan “Cook Political Report” moved her race from “Leans Republican” to “Toss Up.” The Hill ranks the race in the “Leans Republican” category.
Democrats are now more focusing more on the district, where 40-year-old emergency room doctor Raul Ruiz is waging a tough fight to oust the GOP incumbent. Former President Clinton recently endorsed Ruiz, telling the crowd at a rally in California: “You need to send this man to Congress.”
Ruiz paid for college by going business-to-business, asking for them to invest in the community by contributing to his education. He promised the firms he would come back and serve his community as a physician.
Ruiz outraised Bono Mack in the third quarter, which is rare for a challenger. Yet, Bono Mack has a cash on hand advantage.
The independent expenditure arm of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) started pouring hundreds of thousands into the 36th district race in the beginning of September and has spent little more than $784,000 on opposition material targeting Bono Mack.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) did not start spending money in the district until mid-October, and have spent $435,000 to date.
A GOP political operative told The Hill that Republicans are not as concerned about the race, in comparison to other contests in the Golden State such as the challenges that GOP California Reps. Dan Lungren and Brian Bilbray face.
When the DCCC started to “flood the district with money,” the NRCC didn’t want “to take anything for granted” so it laid down money in the district because “Democrats were clearly trying to make a race out of it,” the GOP source explained.
Democrats point to Bono Mack’s last-minute fundraiser with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as evidence that the congresswoman is “running scared.”
California Republican political insider Dan Schnur said, “Boehner’s visit suggests that it is a competitive district, but it’s also smart politics for him to visit some districts that are likely Republican wins. His people want to be able to stand up the day after the election and say that Republicans won in X percent of districts that the Speaker visited in.”
Schnur, a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
Outside groups have spent more than $2 million in the district — a hefty sum considering that it does not include the pricey Los Angeles media market, as it did prior to the recent redistricting.
Ruiz has attacked Bono Mack for being an “absent” congresswoman, spending time with Mack in Florida or on the road for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.
DCCC western press secretary Amber Moon told The Hill, “Congresswoman Bono Mack is in the political fight of her life because she is an absent congresswoman with a record that is out of touch with the district, including her votes to end Medicare to give tax breaks to millionaires.”
David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report said, “This is probably the worst possible year for her husband to be running for Senate in Florida. It plays into a narrative that Ruiz has tried to weave.”
From April 1998 through September of this year, Bono Mack has missed 425 of 10,174 roll call votes. That is 4 percent, worse than the median of 2.5 percent, according to govtrack.us.
Republicans have seized on Ruiz’s arrest for protesting Thanksgiving when he was a student at Harvard, and his support for the release of convicted FBI killer, Native American Leonard Peltier, as evidence that he is not fit to represent the largely retiree community.
“He led protests against the celebration of Thanksgiving, no joke … because he opposes what Thanksgiving stands for and what it represents … He even called for the smashing of Plymouth Rock, a symbol of American freedom,” Bono Mack reportedly charged at a mid-October debate with Ruiz.
The congresswoman has run ads that replay audio of Ruiz reading a letter in support of Peltier.
Ruiz apologized for what he considers to be youthful indiscretions. Wasserman says that employing such a tactic is not a good sign for Bono Mack.
“It’s very, very tempting for anyone with their hands on a piece of opposition research like that, to use it, but the problem for Bono Mack here, is that incidents from more than a dozen years ago haven’t proven very effective,” Wasserman said.
The NRCC declined to comment for this article.