Wexler opponent goes on TV early; Rep.’s team suspects a grudge match

Those who think the 2008 presidential race has started too early probably should turn a blind eye to the House race in the Florida 19th.

Incumbent Rep. Robert Wexler (D) hasn’t faced an opponent in his last two elections, and he hasn’t been tested seriously since entering Congress.

That did not stop Democratic opponent Ben Graber from taking to the airwaves Saturday in what appears to be the first congressional campaign television ad of the 2008 season.

Graber wouldn’t say how much he spent on the ad, which aired during “Good Morning America,” only that he has put $100,000 of his own money into the campaign, and that he intends to stay on the air as much as possible throughout.
Graber said he hopes to raise and spend $1 million for the campaign.

Wexler reported raising more than $172,000 in the first quarter of this year, leaving the congressman with a reported $568,000 cash on hand.

Eric Johnson, Wexler’s chief of staff, questioned who might be financing Graber’s campaign, especially if he intends to stay on the air for the 17 months leading up to the primary.

Both Graber and multimillionaire Eric Schlossberg have a bone to pick with Wexler.

Both men ran for state Senate last year, with Schlossberg spending more than $3 million in a losing primary. Wexler endorsed both of their opponents.

Because of that grudge and Schlossberg’s wealth, Johnson said they suspect the two disgruntled Democrats are working together.

“We have trouble believing that some of the money isn’t coming from Schlossberg,” Johnson said, adding that they expect Schlossberg to finance independent expenditures targeting Wexler.

Not so, says Graber.

“That’s absolutely false,” he said.

Graber said he doesn’t know Schlossberg well, that he’s a nice guy and Graber would “love to get a contribution from him.”

Another reason Wexler’s staff might believe Graber is running for reasons of revenge dates to 1996.

In Wexler’s first win, he and Graber faced off with two other Democrats in the primary.

Graber eventually endorsed Wexler — support that was not returned last year when Graber ran for state Senate.

Graber chafed at the notion that he would make a congressional run because of some sort of personal vendetta.

“You don’t spend a year and a half of your life and a million dollars for revenge,” he said.

But Kevin Wagner, a political science professor at the district’s Florida Atlantic University, said, “There [has] been no love lost” between Wexler and Graber.

“He came out swinging at Wexler,” Wagner said of Graber’s ad buy.

Wagner said that while there is no proof that Graber and Schlossberg are colluding to defeat Wexler, it is “hard to dismiss” the notion that the race is a grudge match.

“I think the one thing that is clear is that both Graber and Schlossberg have … reason not to like Robert Wexler,” Wagner said. “Typically, you don’t run against a well-seated Democrat … you have to start to wonder why.”

Wagner said he expects a well-financed Graber to run a “caustic” campaign.

Wexler’s staff said they expect to be hit on the congressman’s Iraq votes — in favor early on, opposed later — as well as a weak legislative record and Graber’s claim that he is stronger in his support of Israel than Wexler.

Then there’s Wexler’s much-discussed appearance on “The Colbert Report.”

Joking with the late-night comedian Stephen Colbert during the “Better Know a District” segment — a potential minefield for politicians — Wexler endorsed cocaine use and prostitution as fun diversions.

Graber said he does not yet know how much hay he’ll make out of Wexler’s jokes, but he didn’t hesitate to criticize the congressman’s attempts at humor.

“I think that was an embarrassment for him, and I think it showed poor judgment,” Graber said, adding that he thought Wexler “either … got flustered and told the truth” or was trying to be funny.

Either way, Graber said, it sends the wrong message to any teenagers who might have been watching.

Graber said he also plans to run on Wexler’s voting record on Iraq and his failure to introduce and pass any meaningful legislation in his time in Congress.

Wagner said the Colbert bit hasn’t seemed to “gain much traction” in the district. The professor even showed the clip to one of his classes, and few of his students were aware of its existence.

And despite the ammunition, Wexler’s immense popularity in the district will make him extremely tough to beat, Wagner said.

“I don’t think Graber [has] got a legitimate shot,” Wagner said. “Maybe he’s just trying to needle Wexler a little.
“If I was a betting man, I wouldn’t bet on Graber getting much traction ever.”

Wagner added that since being elected to Congress in 1996, Wexler has “been fairly bullet-proof.”

That said, Johnson added that Wexler and his campaign would not take any chances “because the media will take [Graber] seriously.”

“We’re taking it very seriously,” Johnson said. “Do I think the congressman’s reelection is in any trouble? I do not.”