Politics & Policy

Allen West: Swing-District Firebrand

His reelection isn’t assured, but West has some factors in his favor.


Pop quiz: How does Florida’s 22nd congressional district — currently represented by perhaps the most high-profile GOP House freshman, Allen West — score in the Cook Partisan Voting Index?

The surprising answer is D+1, meaning marginally Democratic-leaning.

As one of two black Republicans elected to the House of Representatives, West was assured heavy media coverage in his first term in Congress. He stands out even more as a tough-talking war veteran who leaves tea-party audiences enraptured.

During the debt-ceiling fight, West surprised some political observers by agreeing with Speaker John Boehner’s proposal to cut $1.2 trillion in spending over ten years, a sum many tea-party activists found exceedingly modest. The conservative group FreedomWorks e-mailed local activists, hoping to “pull Allen West off this terrible Boehner debt plan.” According to the Palm Beach Post, a constituent named Harold from West Palm Beach told the congressman, “You compromise at your own peril in November of 2012.”

The Washington Post’s often-sarcastic columnist Dana Milbank suggested West was going “squishy.”

West insists his support for the Boehner plan, and the ultimate compromise, stemmed from his conclusion that it was the best option available. It’s easy to suspect that his swing district might be a factor in his positioning, but an examination of the early contours of the 2012 environment suggests that West is actually in stronger shape for reelection than one might think on first glance.

Yes, Obama won in this district in 2008, with 52 percent, and Democratic incumbent Ron Klein carried 54.7 percent against West in the Republican’s first bid for the seat that year. Four years earlier, John Kerry won as well, with 52 percent. But Republicans actually have a slight edge in voter registration, 39.9 percent to 35 percent Democratic. Interestingly, the district is only 5.6 percent black.

Almost as soon as he was sworn in, West attracted two would-be 2012 challengers. One is former West Palm Beach mayor Lois Frankel, who will bring a considerable local base of support from her two terms as mayor and six terms in the Florida State House. The other is Patrick Murphy, a 28-year-old Broward County builder who left the GOP in response to the rise of the Tea Party and who has already accepted a $2,000 donation from former governor Charlie Crist, a Republican-turned-independent. Florida has a late congressional primary, so barring a sudden withdrawal from the race, Frankel and Murphy will be fighting it out all the way to August 28, 2012.

Then there’s the factor of redistricting. It’s too early to tell what effect this will have. We will not know the precise borders of the district until the middle of next year.

Designed to be safe for Republican Clay Shaw in 2000, Florida’s 22nd district is a snakelike marvel, mostly a narrow strip along the coast with the occasional jab into friendly territory. To the east of the 22nd district is the Atlantic Ocean, so at least one border is secure. To the north is the sprawling 16th district, the relatively safely Republican (R+5) district of Tom Rooney. To the west, the 22nd district interweaves and coils with a spur of the 23rd district, that of Rep. Alcee Hastings, a ten-term Democrat in a D+28 district that is 54 percent black. The 22nd also zigzags along the 19th to pick up Coral Springs; the 19th is the heavily Jewish district represented by Democrat Ted Deutch, a district that scores D+15. The southern portion of West’s district bumps along the 20th District, home of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee and the target of a high-profile West rebuke. That district scores D+13.

On paper, the purpose of the current redistricting process is to remove gerrymandering for safe seats and draw district lines that make sense with the natural geographic and demographic boundaries of the state’s communities — in other words, to avoid splitting towns and cities between different districts. The lines of West’s district are dizzyingly irregular, and three of the four districts that border his are fairly heavily Democratic; Hastings, Deutch, or Wasserman Schultz could see some Democratic communities shift into West’s new district and still not break a sweat in their reelection bids.

However, West will find himself in a tougher district only if state GOP lawmakers decide to give him one. The Florida House redistricting committee is scheduled to review public input on new lines through the end of the year and officially approve a new plan by March 9, 2012. Sometime within the 60 days after the governor signs it into law, the U.S. Department of Justice has to preclear the plan. Republicans hold large majorities in the Florida House (81 to 39) and Senate (28 to 12), and the governor, Rick Scott, is a Republican, so it is hard to envision them knowingly endangering incumbent U.S. House Republicans like West.

“West is in a good position, as long as he continues to do a good job as the district’s representative,” says Javier Manjarres, managing editor of The Shark Tank, a blog focusing on Florida politics. “I have been told that the grand poobahs are out to solidify his seat — they need him in Congress.” In fact, Manjarres adds that he is hearing talk of expanding West’s district north, to include some of the Republican-leaning communities in Rooney’s district.

A move like that would remove West’s exceptionally rare status as a staunch, high-profile conservative from a swing district. Other House conservatives with prominent national profiles have tended to come from reliably Republican districts: Michele Bachmann comes from an R+7 district in central Minnesota; Joe Wilson comes from an R+9 district encompassing the south-central portion of South Carolina. The least heavily Republican seat of any member of the GOP House leadership is Eric Cantor’s R+9 district in central Virginia.

Could West’s iconic role with the national conservative movement hurt him in a not-so-conservative district?

“I am sure he will tone it down once he goes into the district to campaign,” says Manjarres. “But remember, this type of ‘larger than life’ persona is good for raising ‘conservative’ dollars around the nation. I see it as a strategy. As long as he does not cross that line that he likes to blur, he will be fine.”

Indeed, as of July 1, West had $1.26 million on hand, a strong start for a freshman House member. For comparison, Frankel has $621,429; Murphy has $582,027. In the most recent fundraising quarter, West’s average donation was $66, and he had 12,000 new contributors — suggesting he’ll have many donors who can and will give again. And it’s worth remembering that West’s fundraising prowess is nothing new; he actually outspent incumbent Democrat Ron Klein in 2010, $5.98 million to $5.22 million.

All the candidates will need the cash, as the 22nd is an expensive district, with about 40 percent of its territory in the Miami–Fort Lauderdale television market and about 60 percent in the West Palm Beach–Fort Pierce market.

“Advertising there requires a good chunk of change,” says one Washington Republican who is watching the House races closely. “If DCCC wants to go in there, that’s going to be tough. Having said that, if Obama is going to win Florida, one would think he’s going to have to win the Miami media market.” Quinnipiac’s newest poll found Obama’s outlook for winning Florida increasingly ominous.

“Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the Democrats are going to try to paint him as the Uncle Tom rightwing extremist that hates women, the same failing argument they tried to campaign on in 2010,” predicts Manjarres. “Clearly he will play a vital role in the 2012 presidential election, and I don’t think it will matter much who is at the top of the ticket. The GOP candidate for President will reach out to West and his ‘AllenWestNation’ to help win back the White House.” For whatever it is worth, the 2012 Republican National Convention will be held in Tampa, just across the state from West’s district. A prime-time convention address by West is quite possible.

A lot of Democrats would like to see Allen West defeated in 2012. Their efforts will cost them a bundle, and their chances of success will shift along with the district’s lines.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.


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