Congressman Allen West of Florida has another challenger to his re-election in 2012 — the mayor of West Palm Beach, Lois Frankel — in what is already shaping up to be a test of conservative staying power in a traditionally liberal district in South Florida.
“This is about making South Florida a better place to live for all of our citizens, not just those with the same political affiliation,” Frankel said as she announced her decision Monday to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination. “I know this campaign will be hard fought, but I am not afraid of a fight. And I will not be outworked.”
Frankel is the second Democrat in the race. Patrick Murphy, a businessman from Fort Lauderdale, announced his campaign earlier this month.
West, a Republican and a conservative, represents Florida’s 22nd Congressional District. He won the seat in 2010 in a victory over incumbent Ron Klein, who, like Frankel, is a liberal. Political watchers in Palm Beach County are keen to hear from Klein — will he join the race and try to win back his seat? So far, Klein is keeping quiet.
Without doubt, the Democratic Party intends to portray West as well outside the mainstream of his district. Murphy took this approach in his announcement: “I love my country,” Murphy said. “I love South Florida. I’m not going to stand by while right-wing extremists like Allen West divide us.” Frankel followed suit. “This is not about scoring points on cable news shows or making partisan speeches across the country,” she said, a jab at West and his newfound celebrity.
What is less certain is if the Democratic Party wants to make the 2012 election a liberal vs. conservative decision point for South Florida voters. That strategy has risks, given West’s election success. In remarks Monday, Frankel choose to talk about economic recovery: ”My priority is about jobs, jobs, jobs.”
But if Democrats do want to stress the liberal, Frankel can get that message across. First elected to the Florida Legislature in 1986, she served 14 years in the House, where she became an outspoken voice of opposition in a time of expanding Republican power. She left the Legislature in 1992 to run for Congress, losing to U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings in his first congressional race. Frankel was elected mayor of West Palm Beach in 2003 and again in 2007. Palm Beach County does not allow third-term mayors, an incentive for Frankel to look elsewhere.
Murphy’s record is less clear — this is his first attempt at a public office — but the tone of his announcement made it obvious that his political position is some distance from West’s. So far, though, he has defined himself only as the anti-West. For many voters, that’s all they know, and Murphy’s campaign effort is slight at this time. The rest of his portrait remains to be painted.
Klein, like Frankel, has a well-documented record of support for liberal issues, both in the Florida Legislature and in Congress. But Klein has the stinging loss to West weighing down his chances, and, as noted in The Hill’s Ballot Box blog, Klein recently joined the lobbyist arm of a prominent Florida law firm, Holland & Knight, “making a run for his old seat next year unlikely.”
Whoever gains the Democratic Party’s nomination will find that West is not an easy target. An outsider and a newcomer, he triumphed over an established Democrat in a district that usually leans to the left (it went for John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008), something not lost on the leadership of both parties. And since his election in November, West has enjoyed great attention from conservatives — especially from those in the Tea Party movement.
Whether his Tea Party affection proves an asset or a liability remains to be seen in a return to the ballot, but there is little doubt that this alliance means West can draw on both traditional conservatives and the more radical wing of the Republican Party for financial contributions and campaign assistance.
With such backing and the deep resources it could provide, West would be formidable. If he wins re-election, his victory will further define Florida as less liberal, more conservative, give more credibility to the Tea Party as a political force and diminish Democratic hopes of regaining the majority in the House of Representatives.
Bill Edmonds is a consultant in communications in Tallahassee, Florida.