GOP Race Against Grayson Takes Shape

Posted January 15, 2010 at 6:19pm

It may be three months later and a lot larger than national Republican officials would have liked, but the GOP primary field in the race against outspoken Florida Rep. Alan Grayson (D) is finally starting to solidify.

Businessman Bruce O’Donoghue (R) said last week that his official announcement could come as early as this week, and although his entry into the race would raise the number of GOP candidates to double digits, the early recruiting chaos in the Orlando-based district is starting to clear.

O’Donoghue has deep pockets and has already generated some early excitement from party operatives, and he will jump into the top tier of candidates when he finally makes his bid official. Joining him in that group are wealthy real estate developer Armando Gutierrez Jr. and state Rep. Kurt Kelly, who announced in early January and is the only elected official in the primary. Another candidate to keep an eye on is attorney Todd Long, who two years ago lost a primary challenge to then-Rep. Ric Keller by less than 2,600 votes.

Despite the National Republican Congressional Committee’s early scramble to recruit better-known candidates — such as state Sen. Daniel Webster, Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty and state Rep. Steve Precourt — party strategists appear content, at least for now, to let the GOP field sort itself out.

“We’ll watch how the field does over the first quarter,— one NRCC official said last week. “If someone can separate themselves by then, then there may be an opportunity to get involved.—

There’s no doubt that the NRCC is chomping at the bit to get on with the campaign against Grayson, who rivals Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) as the Democrat whom Republicans most love to hate.

Coming off his upset victory over Keller in 2008, Grayson was at the top of GOP target lists even before he earned national attention for his comment during the health care debate that the GOP wants the sick to “die quickly.—

Since then, Grayson has become a champion of national liberal groups and his fundraising has reflected it.

In the fourth quarter, Grayson raised $850,000 including more than half a million dollars during a one-day “moneybomb— event. He’s set to report just less than $1 million in cash on hand when he files his year-end Federal Election Commission report.

The Congressman also has deep pockets. Last cycle he dumped more than $2 million of his own money into his campaign.

But Republicans believe Grayson has simply moved too far left to relate to a district that almost evenly splits along party lines and has a history of supporting conservative Republicans on social and economic issues.

“No amount of money spent on TV can convince voters that Grayson’s stimulus and health care votes were a good thing, and no amount of money can make voters forget that this man has become a joke in his own district,— said Jason Miller, Keller’s former chief of staff and campaign manager.

As for who he believes will be the one to knock off Grayson, Miller likes Kelly.

“As the only elected Republican running, he’s vetted,— Miller said. “He’s likable, he’s solid on the stump, not prone to errors and isn’t fundamentally flawed like some other candidates.—

Kelly’s biggest obstacle right now appears to be a geographic one. Although about half the population on his state House district falls into the 8th district, Kelly’s base is in the northern counties of the district, not Orlando. And, perhaps more importantly, Kelly doesn’t actually live within the boundaries of the Congressional district.

“I meet all of the qualifications,— Kelly said, adding, “I will live in the district when it comes time to serve.—

But Kelly said the real issue isn’t about geography.

“Today the issue is about philosophy and experience, and [voters] recognize a guy like Grayson is a world away from the district philosophically. … I’m the only guy that’s represented the district. I’ve been representing the citizens in the northern portion of this district for almost nine years,— during his three years in the state House and as a member of the Marion County School Board before that.

Another candidate for whom geography will be an issue is Gutierrez, a 28-year-old who moved from South Florida to the Orlando area for the Congressional contest.

Since entering the race last fall, Gutierrez has turned heads with several high-profile endorsements — including those of GOP Reps. Tom Rooney (Fla.), Gus Bilirakis (Fla.) and Aaron Schock (Ill.) — and a fourth-quarter fundraising total that topped $300,000. But some national party officials and local Republicans have been skeptical that the son and namesake of a wealthy Cuban-American activist is the right candidate for the district.

“I don’t think Gutierrez is going to be much of a factor in this race at all,— said Long, who began practicing law in Orlando in 1989. His endorsements “are all from out of the district and because his family has given these people so much money throughout the years. He’s a 28-year-old guy that nobody knows here in Orlando.—

But David Johnson, a Florida Republican consultant and former state GOP executive director, said Gutierrez has done a good job of establishing himself by quickly landing his high-profile endorsements without the help of the national party.

“Those [endorsements] turn heads,— Johnson said. “If you’re running in a primary where [voters] say, ‘Gosh I don’t know much about any of these people who are running,’ that’s exactly where those endorsements will help.—

O’Donoghue said he expects to have his own high-profile endorsements and cited former Sen. Mel Martinez and former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings as examples of well-known Florida Republicans supporting him.

But O’Donoghue said his support in the district will be his biggest asset.

“I’m the native son of Orange County, and Orange County people kind of want Orange County people,— O’Donoghue said.