Republican freshman Adams notches win amid primary fight with Rep. Mica

In the latest GOP primary battle of freshman versus veteran, score one for the rookie.

The House last week passed Rep. Sandy Adams’s bill reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, giving the first-term Florida lawmaker a key legislative win early in her House career.

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Winning passage of a significant bill would be a boost to any freshman, but the timing is particularly opportune for Adams, who is facing off in a primary race with Rep. John Mica, a fellow House Republican and a committee chairman with 19 years of experience in the House.

Senior Republicans gave Adams the lead role in the legislation, which moved quickly to the House floor and passed despite opposition from 23 Republicans and all but six Democrats. It must now be reconciled with a competing Senate bill that passed the upper chamber with bipartisan support.

In an interview, Adams said victims’ rights was the issue that motivated her to jump into local politics a decade ago, after serving as a deputy sheriff in central Florida.

Years earlier, as a teenage mother who dropped out of school to join the Air Force, Adams was a victim of domestic violence. The young service member she married became an abusive alcoholic, and she ran away with her 3-year-old daughter.

“The only thing we took was our clothes,” Adams said, calmly retelling a story she has shared often in recent weeks as she has advocated for her bill.

Party leaders knew about Adams’s background in law enforcement, but she said “they were first surprised” when they heard her story of abuse.

When Republicans decided they wanted to counter mounting attacks from Democrats by moving their own version of the Violence Against Women Act to the floor, Adams became a natural choice to carry the bill.

The fact that she was fighting a fellow Republican member for a House seat did not come up, lawmakers and aides said.

“I think everyone understood that if you were to drill down and say, ‘Who understands more about VAWA and what the application of this law is?’ then most likely everybody would have raised their hands and said, ‘Oh, Sandy Adams really understands a lot about this,’ ” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a co-sponsor of the bill. “I don’t think there would have been an argument about that one.”

Blackburn said she recommended Adams to the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

Democrats and advocacy groups attacked the legislation, saying it was weaker than the Senate version and lacked protections for immigrants, Native Americans and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered women. Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the Adams bill came out of nowhere and sailed through with little input from advocates. “It popped up like a bad weed,” Smith said.

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Adams rejects the criticism. She noted that Republicans changed the bill to address concerns about immigrants and said Native American and LGBT women were covered in the legislation. “We have a bill that covers all victims — all victims,” she said. “We did not roll back protections for any group.”

The bill’s House passage gives Adams, who has aligned herself with the Tea Party, an accomplishment to cite in her race against Mica, who is running on what he calls “a proven record” of conservative values over the course of 20 years in Congress.

Still, Adams refused to discuss the domestic violence measure in the context of her campaign. “You’re asking me to mix policy and politics, and I won’t do it,” she said.

Mica, the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has struggled this year to pass a long-term highway bill central to Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) jobs agenda.

He voted for the domestic-violence bill, and his campaign said it had no problem with Adams getting the high-profile assignment. “This is a significant issue, and she has a personal story,” Mica spokesman Alan Byrd said. Mica, he said, is focused on issues that voters in the 7th district are most concerned about: growing jobs and cutting spending.

Mica chose to run in the reconfigured 7th district near Orlando instead of an open seat in the 6th. Both members have homes in the district, but a majority of the new territory is in Adams’s current district. Mica, however, had nearly three times as much money in his campaign account at the end of April, federal records show. The primary election is Aug. 14.

“Most people would say, at a minimum, it’s an even-odds race right now, and maybe a slight edge to [Adams],” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. While the election is expected to be fought on bread-and-butter economic issues, the passage of the domestic-violence bill gives Adams “more visibility,” MacManus said.

Party leaders have not gotten involved in the race, and even rank-and-file members have steered clear so far. While both Adams and Mica scored contributions from leadership and fellow members in 2011, just a handful have given money to either of them in 2012. Adams has a contribution from another freshman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), and Mica has received donations in 2012 from Reps. Bill Shuster (Pa.), Kay Granger (Texas) and Pete Sessions (Texas), the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Outside groups have yet to invest heavily in the race, but Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the anti-incumbent Campaign for Primary Accountability, said the organization is eyeing the Mica-Adams race and could jump in on behalf of Adams.