In Florida, Republicans declare open season on freshman Dem Rep. Kosmas

Welcome to the most wide-open primary of the 2010 election cycle — so far.

In recent days and weeks, a series of Republican candidates have jumped at the chance to face freshman Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) in a battleground district just east of Orlando. All of them have elective experience or a significant niche, and most of them, like Kosmas, are female.

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There is no clear favorite at this point — it depends on whom you ask — even though the national party has shown excitement about Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel in the early going.

In recent days, state Reps. Dorothy Hukill and Sandy Adams have said they are also running for the seat, complicating the primary, which should only continue to grow.

“On the Republican primary side, it really is a jump ball,” said Bryan Malenius, who was chief of staff to former Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) in the neighboring 8th district. “I don’t think there’s any name in there that clears the field, but all of them have the potential to raise money and be really formidable against Suzanne Kosmas.”

Because the district was added this decade through reapportionment, there hasn’t been a long line of heirs apparent waiting in the wings.

As state House speaker, former Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) essentially created the 24th district for himself in advance of the 2002 elections. Despite this, Feeney lost to Kosmas by 16 points in 2008, and the district has become very competitive.

Orlando GOP consultant John Dowless said the fact that Adams holds Feeney’s former state House seat means she has a built-in geographical advantage. But he also said Hukill could probably claim that she would be a good general-election candidate since she could take some of the ticket-splitters in Daytona Beach-based Volusia County, where Kosmas is from.

“I know that there are many people who think it might be premature for [Diebel] to go on the congressional scene just yet,” Dowless said. “If she can raise the money, I think she might have a [good chance]. I just don’t know that she has enough name ID.”

National party operatives are counting on a strong second-quarter fundraising report to show exactly why they were high on Diebel. A source close to her campaign said she should approach $100,000 raised in the three weeks leading up to the second-quarter deadline.

She has a compelling personal story as someone whose husband was killed while trying to help a couple in an overturned pickup truck, and the GOP also likes the contrast the 42-year-old Diebel provides to the 65-year-old Kosmas.

But with the ever-increasing number of candidates in the race, just about anything could happen, and the party is taking a cautious approach on the primary.

Dr. Ken Miller is also running, and businessman Sean Campbell, who narrowly lost a special election for a state House seat last year, is looking at the race.

“I believe it’s only natural that — given the incumbent’s record — that there should be plenty of Republicans ready to take her place,” Diebel said.

A crowded primary isn’t quite ideal, but Republicans are taking a wait-and-see approach to the field in the hope that a strong contender will emerge.

“It’s not like every single star is aligning, but given the fundamentals and the fact that we’re guaranteed to have someone credible, we’ll have a good shot,” said a Washington-based Republican operative.

Adams said each of the candidates brings something different, and she sounds ready to play up her past in law enforcement.

“You’ve got three women who have different aspects that they bring to the table,” she said, emphasizing that others are still looking at the race.

While the candidates and the primary shake out, the party will be doing its best to engage Kosmas and make her an issue in the campaign. Unlike fellow freshman Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), Kosmas is more apt to legislate quietly and avoid controversy.

That’s a solid strategy in a big media market like Orlando’s, where, as Grayson is finding out, bad publicity can be damning.

The GOP has begun trying to draw Kosmas out on her recent statement to Florida Today that, “Within five years, we will no longer have a deficit.” Kosmas was asked how she squared her support for pay-as-you go legislation with the expense of the stimulus package, which she supported.

“Suzanne Kosmas’s first six months in Congress have produced little more than soaring deficits, at-risk Space Coast jobs and a strong field of GOP candidates ready and willing to hold her accountable,” said Andy Seré, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

Kosmas spokesman Marc Goldberg declined to comment on the GOP primary but said Monday that his boss is working hard on fiscal issues.

Kosmas has been among the top fundraisers in the freshman class, and will report around $350,000 raised in the second quarter.

“Congresswoman Kosmas is committed to fiscal responsibility and to reining in spending, which is why she is an original co-sponsor of the new pay-go legislation,” Goldberg said.