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Several Florida Districts Could Be In Play Next Year

Former Rep. Karen Thurman (D-Fla.), who was narrowly defeated by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.) in 2002, is eyeing a rematch next year, knowledgeable sources said last week.

Thurman, who represented the west-central 5th district for a decade before becoming a top target for Republicans during the 2001 redistricting process, has already made at least one trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with party leaders about her interest in the race.

“She was in town recently talking with her colleagues about a potential run and has not ruled out a run,” said a source familiar with the situation. “She’d be a strong candidate were she to decide to run.”

Thurman lost to Brown-Waite 48 percent to 46 percent in a contentious race, during which Brown-Waite’s husband and the spouse of an aide were caught stealing the Democrat’s signs. And the rivalry has spilled over into the current Congress as well.

While Florida’s status as a presidential battleground in 2004 is a given, the possible rematch in the 5th district highlights the Sunshine State’s role as a key Congressional playing field for Democrats.

With the potential for as many as a half-dozen competitive open-seat and challenger races next year, House Democrats are hoping the flurry of political activity in the epicenter of the protracted 2000 election will help them crack the GOP hold on the state and win back the majority.

“That’s going to be a battleground state for both parties,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Robert Matsui (Calif.). “We’re going to be heavily involved in Florida.”

Matsui predicted that seven or even eight Florida House seats could be in play next year, although some would only see competitive primaries.

To date, four House Members have said they are considering a bid to replace Sen. Bob Graham (D), who is running for president but has not definitively ruled out running for re-election.

Reps. Alcee Hastings (D), Peter Deutsch (D), Alan Boyd (D) and Mark Foley (R) are all eyeing a Senate bid, with Deutsch and Foley the two most likely to run.

If Boyd did vacate his rural Panhandle seat, the race to replace him would be competitive. While Democrats outnumber Republicans based on registration in the conservative 2nd district, voters gave Republican George W. Bush a slight majority there in 2000.

State Rep. Bev Kilmer (R) has already said she is exploring a run for the seat if Boyd leaves, and would not rule out running against him if he stays. Leon County School Superintendent Bill Montford is being encouraged to run as a Democrat if Boyd doesn’t.

Boyd said Thursday that he would make a decision about the Senate race in “60 to 75 days,” although he added, “I like my job.”

The four-term Blue Dog also charged that the “short-term mentality” of the GOP-controlled state Legislature’s efforts to pen new Republican districts during last cycle’s remapping process may end up backfiring on the party. He said the new lines may jeopardize the GOP’s ability to hold other seats when they become open.

For example, Rep. Bill Young’s (R-Fla.) marginal 10th district seat is one Democrats point to as competitive open-seat territory.

There has been some speculation that Young, whose tenure as Appropriations chairman ends after this Congress, may retire next year. While Democrats are salivating at the prospect that a district President Bush lost might open in a presidential election year, Republicans believe Young will stay in Washington and take the helm of the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense.

The only other Member of the delegation on retirement watch is Rep. Porter Goss (R). Goss, who was slated to retire at the end of the last Congress, has said he doesn’t expect to run for re-election next year, and a number of GOP candidates are already lining up in the solidly Republican district. Among those who have indicated their interest are: state Sen. Burt Saunders, Lee County Commissioner Andy Coy and state Reps. Carole Green and Dudley Goodlette.

Meanwhile, only one of the two seats most likely to be vacated if Graham does not seek re-election would see a competitive race.

Deutsch’s Fort Lauderdale-based district is heavily Democratic, and state Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D) is already gearing up to run in the 20th if he doesn’t.

The race for Foley’s Palm Beach-based 16th district, however, could be competitive. After Gore narrowly won there in 2000, the GOP-controlled Legislature redrew the district to give it a Republican edge, and Bush would have won with 52 percent. In an effort to expand the national playing field, Democrats may look to target the district regardless of whether Foley runs for Senate.

Republicans, however, counter that the seat looks more competitive on paper than in actuality, noting its Republican registration advantage.

“For them a lot of what their challenge is, at this point, is to turn perception into reality,” said a Republican campaign strategist, charging that Democrats will be “talking up a lot of races” as part of their efforts to expand the competitive playing field.

But Matsui said that efforts to create more competitive races may be bolstered by the party’s recruitment efforts, and he indicated that more candidates are showing interest than in years past.

“We are seeing a number of good candidates,” Matsui said, “unlike 2002 and 2000, when actually there had to be a lot of recruitment more than having candidates come to us.”

He also said he expects even more candidates to come forward now that the war in Iraq appears to be winding down.

“When it’s about the economy, that’s when I think candidates start to say, ‘Well maybe this is doable against an incumbent or in an open seat,’ or something of that nature,” Matsui said.

Still, he conceded that the party’s success hinges largely on the way the political winds are blowing by next November.

“I don’t think we need a big wave, but there’s no question that any party that is trying to take the institution back will need some momentum,” Matsui said. “Otherwise it becomes a status quo situation.”

Status quo might best sum up the situation in the 5th district, where Brown-Waite and Thurman are still firing potshots at each other five months after the election.

In February, Brown-Waite blamed Thurman for delays in sending more than 20 American flags to constituents because she said her predecessor failed to notify her of five flag orders when she took office.

“No records of these transactions were kept and people were not informed as to what was happening to their flag orders,” Brown-Waite said at the time. “It is unfortunate that people were let down in this way.”

In response, Thurman told The Tampa Tribune in February that new Members are responsible for dealing with ongoing constituent cases.

“You won,” Thurman scolded Brown-Waite in the newspaper. “You got what you wanted. Now work for the people.”

More recently, Brown-Waite made headlines after proposing legislation that would allow the families of World War II soldiers who were killed and buried in France to exhume the bodies in order to re-inter them in “more patriotic” soil.

If she runs, Thurman could be the third former Member defeated last year to seek a Congressional comeback. In Georgia, former Rep. Bob Barr (R) is running in an open-seat race, and ex-Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D) has also filed paperwork to run for her old 4th district seat. Both Barr and McKinney were defeated in primaries.

A spokeswoman for Brown-Waite said she had heard “rumors” that Thurman might run again, but said the Congresswoman is planning for a strong challenge regardless of who the opponent is. Additionally, a GOP strategist indicated that Brown-Waite is expected to post impressive fundraising numbers for the first quarter when reports are filed with the Federal Election Commission this week.

“My boss is preparing to run an aggressive campaign no matter who runs against her,” spokeswoman Caryn McLeod said. “She’s made plans to stay here.”

Brown-Waite is one of four GOP freshman elected from Florida last cycle, and other newcomers are likely to be targeted as well.

Freshman Rep. Katherine Harris (R) will probably be high on the Democrats’ target list. Democrats view the former secretary of state, who played a prominent role in deciding the 2000 presidential race, as vulnerable after she was elected with 55 percent against a less-than-stellar Democratic opponent.

Republicans, however, dispute that the Sarasota-based 13th district is fertile territory for Democrats.

“We believe that all Republican-held seats [in Florida] we will be able to bring back,” said a confident Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Reynolds also said he would focus specifically on helping re-elect the targeted freshmen in the state that boasts the second-largest GOP delegation in Congress.

“We want to make sure they’re here as a whole,” he said.

Aside from new Members, Democrats are also likely to focus on recruiting a top challenger to Rep. Clay Shaw (R), who has been targeted the past two cycles.

While Shaw escaped with a narrow victory in 2000, he won a solid 60 percent last year after his district was improved considerably in redistricting.

“This is a better district than Clay Shaw has had in years,” the Republican strategist said. “This is an example of a district that while on paper it may look to favor Democrats, historically I think we’ve shown that Clay Shaw is more than capable of holding that seat.”

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