WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – One day last week, Allen West strode into a windowless half-ballroom in a nondescript hotel near the airport here to address a meeting of the Independent Insurance Agents of Palm Beach County. His foot crossed the threshold of the room at exactly 11:30 a.m.
The freshman Congressman from Florida, unlike most politicians, shows up to his events on time. To the minute. To the second.
Most of the insurance agents had not yet arrived.
As he waited, West, 51 with perfect posture, easily schmoozed with a small and friendly crowd.
“General West,” one older man said as he greeted the former Army lieutenant colonel.
“Oh, you promoted me,” West replied with a big smile.
Sixty or 70 people settled into their seats and began to eat their lunches.
West’s speech began with a numbers-based discussion of debt, deficit and unemployment. It evolved into a lengthy and nuanced explanation of taxes and fiscal policy.
West argued that the politicians who want to raise taxes on the top two tax brackets are essentially raising taxes on small-business owners.
“As a small-business owner, you operate as a subchapter S or an LLC. You use your personal income tax rate,” he said.
This is not the firebrand West with whom cable news viewers might be most familiar. West delivered a cogent, sober, wonky, data-driven argument for a Republican way of governing. He made the case for the GOP approach to the federal debt and fiscal responsibility.
The event was part of his official Congressional duties, so he didn’t mention his November opponent or his targeted re-election race. After the speech, he took questions. In answering them, he quoted Plato from memory and referenced Phoenician sea power.
Later, after posing for photos with a dozen fans who seemed giddy to meet him, a reporter asked him a question about his Democratic opponent, Patrick Murphy. A different side of West appeared.
“I don’t care what Patrick Murphy says about me,” West said. “Patrick Murphy is irrelevant. I am running against a stand-in. I don’t have an opponent. Until I know he can stand up and do what I just did, he doesn’t exist.”
Murphy, however, does exist. The 29-year-old has raised about $2.4 million so far this cycle. And though he is young and new to politics, Murphy has developed into a polished candidate since he began his campaign early last year.
Still, make no mistake: This race is a referendum on West.
Whether it is a referendum on the sober, thoughtful, substantial, data-driven convincer West or the partisan provocateur who called Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) “vile, unprofessional, and despicable” and said 78 to 81 Members of Congress were Communists may well determine whether he comes back for a second term.
‘We Have the Numbers to Win’
Murphy shows up a little late to his events, but for supporters, it’s always worth the wait. This is the man who, they believe, will unseat West. And that makes all the difference.
“I can’t stand West,” said 83-year-old Francis Cain at a meet-and-greet for Murphy last week. “Because he says really stupid things.”
In interviews with almost two dozen Murphy supporters, the deep and abiding distaste for West and dissatisfaction with his performance in Congress was palpable. The force of their fury – and their dollars – is part of the reason why this contest is competitive.
“This is a very visceral race,” explained Rachelle Litt, a pharmacist. Because of West, she said, but also “because of the women’s issues, what’s at stake for us – everyone who has mothers and daughters.”
Both women were at a recent Murphy meet-and-greet in Palm Beach Gardens hosted in a supporter’s house. The home sat in a gated community within a gated community.
Many of the 60 or so people milling about, munching on snacks, hadn’t met Murphy before. The candidate walked up to each individual and introduced himself.
Murphy, who listens attentively, leaning forward, has an aw-shucks kind of charm to him. He seemed to hit it off best with senior voters, who almost always began by asking his age.
Murphy often talks about his business experience. After the BP oil spill, he helped lead a company that skimmed oil from the Gulf of Mexico. The company was an affiliate of his family’s huge and successful construction business.
After greeting guests, Murphy gave a 10-minute speech. He talked about his rÃ©sumÃ© – certified public accountant, businessman – and contrasted his views with those of West, especially on Medicare, Social Security and abortion. There were lots of common Democratic talking points. But before Murphy touched on any issues, he made the case that he would win this race in Florida’s newly configured 18th district, the majority of which is currently represented by Rep. Tom Rooney (R).
“Get that notion out of your head that it’s a Republican seat. We have the numbers to win, it’s just about getting people out to vote,” he said. Obama would have won the district, adjusted in redistricting, by about 3 points in 2008, though he might not win it this November.
“We have 77 days to go to get my name ID up. Allen West’s name ID is about 30 or 40 percent higher than mine,” Murphy explained, referring to the percentage of people in the district who know who each candidate is.
Strategically, Murphy aides believe a victory will come from boosting his name ID as well as telling voters about West’s more colorful quotes and controversial votes, such as his support for Wisconsin GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget. The path to a win presupposes Obama is within a reasonable range of victory in the district, even if he doesn’t win it. A strong Romney in the Sunshine State would almost certainly mean West is re-elected.
Murphy has been up with television ads in the district since July 14 and will stay on air through the election. In his stump speech and on TV, Murphy portrays West as uncompromising and thus an essential part of why Washington is so broken. He uses West’s own words against him.
In one recent spot, children on a playground quote West. “Member of the Communist Party,” four children taunt.
“Bullying and name-calling have no place on the playground, or in Congress,” Murphy says in the spot. “I’ll reach across the aisle and solve problems.”
‘No One Else Defines Me’
If West’s biggest liabilities in this race are the quotes he’s best known for, Murphy’s achilles heel is this: He is a blank slate in many voters’ minds.
If West and his allies can convince swing voters that Murphy has little substance and a is a born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-mouth member of a rich family – their probable message – then the math for a Democratic victory here doesn’t really work. The floor for Murphy, as a credible candidate, in this district is probably 47 percent. But that’s 3 points away from a win.
West has the presence of Army officer, rather than a politician. In his posture, in his gait, in the way the he unfolds arguments in a speech, in his discipline of message in answering questions, he appears more military man than Congressman.
In an interview after his speech to the insurance group, he described what he has to do with his campaign.
“I have to be myself, that’s all I gotta be,” he said. “There are people who get paid to sit down and do all the microtargeting and things of that nature. The most important thing for me is to be a very qualified candidate who can articulate these issues like no one else. That’s the key.
“The strategic battle is to continue to get this message out, to talk about the issues and to define myself,” West said. “Because no one else defines me.”
He’s right. But which definition of West sticks in the minds of swing voters as they go to the polls will determine the outcome of the election.