Until a couple of years ago, the Republicans' grip on Florida's 8th Congressional District felt as tight as Disney World's hold on the family vacation. Since 1982, around the start of the Reagan Revolution, the turf that includes Orlando and Orange County (not to be confused with that other traditional conservative stronghold of the same name in Southern California) had been in comfortable GOP control.
But Barack Obama's 2008 presidential run exposed how diverse the district has become in the past few decades. Minorities, like a burgeoning Puerto Rican community, as well as the independent voters that today make up almost a quarter of the electorate of central Florida's I-4 corridor, turned out in droves to give the Eighth to now President Obama. In the process, they handed their congressional seat to attorney Alan Grayson, a brash, Bronx-born liberal. The Magic Kingdom had suddenly gone Democratic.
Now, thanks largely to Grayson's polarizing tenure as a freshman Congressman, Republicans believe they can take back Sunshine State 8 almost as quickly as they lost it. Last month, they nominated Daniel Webster, a former Florida house speaker and devout Baptist to challenge Grayson. "I greatly respect the Tea Party movement," Webster has said repeatedly during his campaign. And in the Eighth, where the local faction of antigovernment anger is backing him, that feeling is mutual.
Few House races, as a result, feel as ideologically divided as this one. And that's what makes it such an unusual contest for this part of Florida. The Eighth is supposedly the consummate I-4 zone, a bastion of centrist politics. After all, close to 25% of the district's registered voters are independents, leaving Democrats at only 39% and Republicans at only 37% of the registration tally. Even though the I-4 indies, like most nonpartisan voters, are capable of swinging left or right, especially when they're angry at the party in power, they still tend to favor more pragmatic, less ideological candidates.
But the Grayson-Webster contest illustrates how much more partisan our primary system, which exalts navy blue and crimson red over purple, has made our general elections. Since his 2008 win, Grayson has become a pugnacious poster boy for the congressional left, famous for incendiary remarks like, "The Republican health care plan is, 'Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.'" Webster, meanwhile, is just as ready to condemn the new health care reform law as a Soviet-style "redistribution of wealth," and Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus as a "socialist package" that will somehow destroy businesses like his Orlando air-conditioner firm.
Grayson, 52, a Washington lawyer before he settled in Orlando in the early 1990s, has amassed a $4 million re-election war chest. And that's due in large part, he insists, to his provocative statements and stances to the fact, as he wrote recently on the Huffington Post, that he's "not a teabagger" and "doesn't think that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, that President Obama was born in Kenya, or that global warming is a hoax."
Still, in this election cycle, when Democrats are clearly on the defensive, is Grayson overestimating his MoveOn.org appeal? His liberal base might like his bumper sticker decrying the Iraq War ("Bush Lied, People Died") or his tasteless comment that a senior Federal Reserve adviser (a woman) was a "K Street whore" (for which he later apologized). But, notes political analyst Aubrey Jewett of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, "this isn't 2008, when Obama's coattails made a difference. If Grayson keeps up the outrageous reputation, he's taking a bit of a risk this time."
But so is the GOP. There was a lesson, after all, in Grayson's stunning 2008 victory. Florida voters, especially the I-4 crowd, were weary of the right-wing shoutfest that spawned such embarrassing moments as the 2005 Terri Schiavo debacle. That particular episode was engineered by Webster, 61, who jumped into politics in 1979 over a zoning dispute involving his church and went on to lead his party's revival in Florida. When the GOP took the state house in 1996, he became that chamber's first Republican speaker in 122 years and helped usher in Jeb Bush's conservative, eight-year governorship two years later. Because Webster supports ideas like "covenant marriage," legislation promoted by conservatives like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee that would make it much tougher to obtain a divorce, Grayson calls Webster "Taliban Dan, a man with a 19th century name who wants to pass 13th century laws."
As of early August, Webster's campaign had raised little more than $325,000 (though that figure is expected to jump considerably when he releases new contribution figures in the week of Sept. 20). The question is whether he can rely on the red-meat approach to get on financial par with Grayson, or if he needs to reach out to his district's swelling ranks of more moderate voters. "Huge demographic shifts," says Jewett, "have made places like Orange County a lot tougher for a conservative Republican." One dilemma Webster faces: although the district's major Tea Party organizations have endorsed him, the Florida Tea Party distrusts him as a career politician and has put its own candidate, Peg Dunmire, on the ballot instead. Despite his long career as a politician he is, in fact, the longest-serving legislator in Florida history Webster has responded with the rather disingenuous claim that "I am not a career politician. I am a career statesman."
But for all the tiresome dogma, analysts like Jewett point out that both men are solid legislators "who really do believe that their principles will make the country better." Unlike the case with so many partisan pols today, "their ideology isn't affectation." Grayson's passion for health care reform stems in part from his work as co-founder of the Alliance for Aging Research, and his efforts to expose contractor fraud in Iraq won widespread applause. For his part, Webster helped make Florida's bloated government more efficient and its dismal public schools more accountable. Still, when November's most high-profile battle for centrist central Florida is over, Disney World looks to be represented by the hard left or the hard right.