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Race Ratings: Handful of Seats for Grabs After Fla. Reshuffle

Florida picked up two new seats in reapportionment because of population growth. The GOP-led redraw of districts, coupled with a game of musical chairs among Members, has left a handful of open seats. One, drawn in south-central Florida, is likely to be won by Rep. Tom Rooney (R), who decided to run there after his current district was made more competitive. A likely pickup for Democrats is the reconfigured 22nd, currently represented by Rep. Allen West (R), which grew comfortably Democratic in the redraw. In a grand reshuffle, West moved to Rooney’s district, leaving the 22nd open and a ripe pickup opportunity.

Other races to watch in central and southern Florida include the re-election bids of West and fellow freshman GOP Rep. David Rivera. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R) may also face a tough race, depending on how reported federal investigations he is facing play out.

Second of two parts

15th district

Incumbent: Dennis Ross (R)

1st term (48 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

In this solidly Republican district, Ross faces no primary opponents and is a lock for another term. He has a lot of new voters to introduce himself to, but that shouldn’t be a hindrance to his re-election.

16th district

Incumbent: Vern Buchanan (R)

3rd term (69 percent)

Rating: Likely Republican

Add this to the list of events that are less than ideal: a front page, top-of-the-fold New York Times story that reports FBI and IRS investigations into a Member’s alleged financial improprieties — and that a grand jury has been impaneled to investigate the same. A Times article last month reported an apparently growing series of investigations into Buchanan’s alleged financial issues. Buchanan denies any wrongdoing.

The Federal Election Commission has closed one investigation of Buchanan, a fact his attorneys trumpeted to Roll Call. But the other supposed investigations leave a politically toxic cloud of ethical questions hanging over the car dealership owner’s head.

He is running in a Republican-leaning district that is almost identical to his current one. But that doesn’t insulate Buchanan from the impending Democratic attacks. They will paint him as a corrupt used car salesman turned right-wing Republican.

“Buchanan is a quintessential sleazy Congressman,” said one influential Tallahassee Democrat operative, “and people don’t like Congress.”

Democrats see real potential to knock the Congressman’s unfavorable numbers up enough to make this race extremely competitive. That hasn’t happened yet, though.

“The Democrats have used this smear campaign too many times for voters to take them seriously,” Buchanan campaign spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts said.

The likely Democratic nominee is former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald (D), a college professor who, as a candidate, doesn’t set the world on fire. In fact, he lost his statehouse re-election bid in 2010. But Democrats believe a mild-mannered, trustworthy professor who sells himself on his website as having devoted his life to public service is a perfect contrast to Buchanan. Fitzgerald raised $224,000 in the fourth quarter and had just less than $200,000 in the bank at the end of December. It’s a good start, but he’ll need a lot more to get his message about
Buchanan out to voters. The Congressman had more than $1.1 million in cash on hand at the end of the year.

That monetary disparity and the district’s lean mean that, right now,
Buchanan maintains a solid edge. It also doesn’t hurt that he still has the support of House leadership. Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) is slated to appear at a Sarasota fundraiser with the Congressman on Saturday. But Buchanan’s strong position in the race could quickly evaporate as events and the campaign unfold. This race is worth watching closely — power players in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., certainly are.

17th district

Incumbent: Tom Rooney (R)

2nd term (67 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

In a high-stakes game of musical chairs, Rooney left the coastal 18th district, which included a big majority of his current constituents, for this district that includes just a third of them. Why would he do that? The 17th is a safely Republican seat; the 18th is not.

Rooney, despite having hundreds of thousands of new voters to introduce himself to, should comfortably return to Congress next January.

18th district

Incumbent: Allen West (R)

1st term (54 percent)

Rating: Leans Republican

West jumped to this swing district when his 22nd was drawn to be substantially more Democratic. Businessman Patrick Murphy (D), who was running against West in the 22nd, followed him. The new 18th has about a quarter of the current 22nd district’s population.

Before Murphy announced his move, West told Roll Call that it would be unwise for the businessman to follow him to the 18th.

“That would be a very dangerous thing,” West said. “If he goes back and studies Hannibal, you may not want to follow a very savvy person that just avoided an ambush because obviously they got something that’s waiting for you.”

The race between the two probably won’t be quite so epic. But with both having proved to be good at hyperbole and fundraising, it will be nasty and expensive.

Democrats privately admit that Murphy, 29, isn’t the strongest candidate in the world, but he’ll raise good money running against West, 51, a tea party superstar, and they think the lean of the district gives him an edge. President Barack Obama would have won the 18th in 2008.

With incumbency and almost $3 million in the bank at the end of 2011 though, West has the early edge in this race.

19th district

Open Seat: Connie Mack IV (R) is running for Senate.

Rating: Safe Republican

This is one of the safest GOP districts in the state so the question becomes: Which Republican will represent it? Unaligned GOP strategists said it’s far too early to tell who has the edge in what could be a crowded and raucous primary, but Chauncey Goss, the son of former Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.), probably has the edge in name identification. Among the GOP field, a highly credible candidate is state Rep. Gary Aubuchon.

20th district

Incumbent: Alcee Hastings (D)

10th term (79 percent)

Rating: Safe Democratic

Twenty years after Hastings was first elected to Congress, expect to see him win overwhelmingly at the polls once again. There are no opponents yet, but, Hastings told Roll Call, “Someone always shows up on the last day of filing who would like to get trounced.”

21st district

Incumbent: Ted Deutch (D)

1st full term (63 percent)

Rating: Safe Democratic

The new lines were good for Deutch, who retains a very Democratic district and, with it, a very solid path to re-election.

22nd district

New Seat

Rating: Leans Democratic

This seat got a whole lot more Democratic in redistricting — so much so, that West decided to run somewhere else.

Subsequently, former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner (R) dropped his Senate bid and decided to run here. He is almost certain to be the GOP nominee. There are points that will work to his advantage in the general: He represented a chunk of the district during his time in the state Legislature, so some voters will be familiar with him; Hasner is Jewish, like many voters in the new district; and he had $667,000 in his federal account at the end of 2012.

But the voters here are Democratic and would have voted 57 percent for President Barack Obama in 2008. And Hasner spent almost a year tacking hard to right in an attempt to win the GOP nomination for Senate.

“Republicans don’t need to be less partisan,” Hasner often said on the campaign trail. “Republicans need to be more principled.” That’s not an argument that will play well overall in this district.

He’s picked up endorsements from Florida Republican superstars such as Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, but it’s unclear if that will help him in the general election.

There’s a contentious primary on the Democratic side between Broward County Commissioner Kristin Jacobs and former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel. Frankel, who has been in the race for months and had a few boffo fundraising quarters, has the edge in the primary and is expected by Democratic strategists to win. That leaves Democrats feeling pretty good about the race.

“Two Jewish candidates from Palm Beach: We win that,” said the influential Tallahassee Democratic operative.

The numbers in the district do make it a rough slog for Hasner. “It’s such a good district that a Republican has to work pretty hard to overcome it,” said one Democratic consultant in the state.

23rd district

Incumbent: Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D)

4th term (60 percent)

Rating: Safe Democratic

Late last year, walking down the steps of the Capitol one evening after votes, Wasserman Schultz was asked whether she would be a target of Republican map-drawers, given her position as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

“I’m sure they are going to do their best to make my life difficult but that’s OK,” she said with a laugh. “It comes with the territory.”

Wasserman Schultz was given a slightly less Democratic district in the redraw, but it’s still incredibly comfortable turf for her. In a presidential year, without any serious opposition, she should easily best her margin of victory from 2010.

24th district

Incumbent: Frederica Wilson (D)

1st term (86 percent)

Rating: Safe Democratic

The hats will return to the 113th Congress. Wilson, a former school principal known for her collection of ornate headwear, has the safest Democratic seat in the state. She doesn’t face a serious primary challenge and should continue to represent the majority-minority district for another term.

25th district

Incumbent: Mario Diaz-Balart (R)

5th term (Unopposed)

Rating: Safe Republican

Diaz-Balart keeps about half of his current district under the new map, but he retains an easy route to another term. The 25th is the most Republican of the three South Florida Hispanic-majority Republican districts, and the Congressman faces no real challenges to re-election.

26th district

Incumbent: David Rivera (R)

1st term (52 percent)

Rating: Leans Republican

This contest is likely to pit Rivera, who has been under investigation for alleged financial improprieties since he took the oath last January, against state Rep. Luis Garcia (D). Rivera’s ethics troubles have left him struggling to raise money, which has opened the prospect of a primary challenge. But none has materialized so far. Republicans say Rivera is still popular in the Miami-area district and is likely to be the GOP nominee.

If there is one person who could knock him out, however, Florida Republicans say it would be state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera (R).

Garcia, an affable former fireman, is a good fit for the district, but, privately, Democrats grumble that he needs to up his fundraising game to make a race in this Republican district truly competitive.

27th district

Incumbent: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R)

11th full term (69 percent)

Rating: Safe Republican

Sometime in the future, Ros-Lehtinen won’t run for re-election and this could be a competitive district. Not in 2012.

The popular chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee should win this Hispanic-majority district without any trouble. Under the new lines, Ros-Lehtinen was disappointed to lose the Florida Keys, but the district is a few points more Republican than her current district, so her political risk remains negligible. Her popularity means that even if President Barack Obama wins the reconfigured 27th this year, she’ll handily outperform him.

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