Florida this year registered its highest unemployment rate ever, topping 12%, and few regions have felt the Sunshine State's economic gloom more than the Space Coast. There, along the central Atlantic shore, where the Kennedy Space Center anchors one of the rare pockets of high-tech work in Florida's tourist-driven service economy, the twilight of the space-shuttle program has produced some of the worst joblessness on the peninsula.
In that earthbound environment, U.S. Representative Suzanne Kosmas and the Democrats are fighting to hold on to Florida's 24th Congressional District a House seat they took from the Republicans only two years ago. The district, stretching from the Space Coast west to Orlando, was one of two that Florida gained after the 2000 census; it was drawn by the GOP-led legislature largely for the state's alpha conservative at the time, Tom Feeney. He held the seat for three terms, until the 2008 election, when his links to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff enabled Kosmas, a former state representative and real estate business owner from New Smyrna Beach, to hand him the worst congressional defeat that year for a Republican (57% to 41%).
Still, given the current economic doldrums, the Republicans are considered a good bet to recover the 24th this year. Although no independent polling is available, the momentum with a week to go before the Nov. 2 vote seems to belong to Kosmas' GOP challenger, former state representative and conservative Tea Party favorite Sandy Adams. After she defeated a crowded GOP primary field in August with only 30% of the vote, Adams needed time to rally her party's base. By late September, in fact, she trailed Kosmas in fundraising $1.2 million to $300,000 and had yet to run a campaign TV ad.
But in just the past six weeks, Adams has taken in an additional $350,000, as heavy hitters like former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz (who had backed one of Adams' primary opponents) and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (who headlined an event for Orlando Republicans this past weekend) stumped for her. Just as important, conservative groups around the country have started flooding the airwaves, mailboxes and phone lines of central Florida with attack ads portraying Kosmas as a Beltway spendthrift, while the national Democratic Party has all but turned off its aid to Kosmas as the tide has shifted in Adams' favor.
Add to that the fact that Florida independents who make up more than 20% of the voters in the 24th District, a part of the state's centrist I-4 Corridor appear to be leaning Republican this year, and Adams has a decided edge. Independents, in fact, bit Feeney hard in 2008, and they could be a deciding factor this year as well. They may be "disgusted with the polarizing ways of both parties," says University of Florida political analyst Richard Scher, "but they're also angry about the economy. The question is, how angry?" Enough to color one of Kosmas' recent campaign spots, in which she intones, "I'm mad too." Like so many Democratic incumbents, she's distanced herself from President Obama and his $780 billion economic stimulus (which she voted for) and health care reform bill (whose House version she voted against but whose final Senate version she backed because, she says, it had more cost savings) while fending off charges from Adams, who wants to repeal the health care law, that she did nothing as a freshman Congresswoman to "stop Washington's outrageous spending."
While Kosmas and Adams try to outdo each other with tough antispending rhetoric, each has to prove that she'll be more effective at bringing the high-tech pork back to the Space Coast where voters are famous for the hypocrisy of demanding less government spending unless it's NASA spending. Kosmas has fought Obama's plans to shut down NASA's Constellation program, geared toward returning astronauts to the moon. And in a debate with Adams this month, she insisted that her efforts helped secure an additional space-shuttle flight, planned for February, as well as an Obama task force that's investing $40 million to help the region make the transition out of the shuttle program. "My record," Kosmas said in the debate, "has been about protecting NASA funding so that [the agency] can be strong, forward-thinking, and can remain No. 1 in space exploration." Adams says she also wants to safeguard if not increase NASA dollars, but aside from pledging to trim the agency's bureaucracy, she's so far been vague about how to make it viable again.
Kosmas, 66, still faces two hurdles. One is the growing feeling among voters that the GOP is going to take back the House this year and that, as a result, they'll stand a better chance of siphoning more money from Washington if they send a Republican. Another is the fact that since she's had just two years on Capitol Hill, Kosmas for the most part gets only the downside of incumbency; she can already be painted as a creature of Washington, but her two years in office aren't much of an argument for her greater experience.
Question marks, however, also surround Adams, 53, a former Orlando sheriff's investigator and Air Force veteran. Because Republicans and Democrats have roughly the same number of registered voters in the 24th (Republicans have a slight lead), Kosmas has tried to paint Adams as a right-wing extremist who wants to cut Social Security and Medicare and is beholden to the Tea Party, the ultraconservative, antigovernment movement that's influencing so many elections this year. Indeed, though she might be the more fiscally conservative choice, Adams risks alienating the moderately conservative district's large independent bloc with some of the more fringe-thinking stances that helped put her over the top in the GOP primary. One example: her support for repealing the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for the direct election of U.S. Senators. (Tea Partyers claim that letting state legislatures pick Senators again will empower the states vis-à-vis Washington.)
Unlike the other hot central-Florida House contest next door, where brash Democratic incumbent Alan Grayson faces a strong challenge from conservative Republican Daniel Webster in the state's 8th District, the race for the 24th has provided few fireworks. Kosmas and Adams, in fact, are quite possibly two of the blandest House candidates the Sunshine State has to offer in 2010. But the stakes involved in their election are anything but mild.