ORLANDO — The race to represent the congressional district encompassing southern parts of Orlando (including Disney World) mirrors several of the contests #5in5 has visited in the last three months: The incumbent is leading, but his challenger is just behind and could pull ahead in the closing days thanks to a late surge of money and support.
In this case, Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) appears to enjoy a slight edge, thanks to incumbency and a Republican voter enrollment advantage. But Democrat Val Demings appears to have gained momentum in recent weeks and outraised Webster in the third quarter, suggesting that growing support plus a strong turnout for President Obama in the district could help her eke out a slim win. (Caveat: In this race, like many others, there is no reliable public, nonpartisan polling, but internal partisan polling suggests a close race.)
Webster is the former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, who defeated Democrat Alan Grayson two years ago in one of the nastiest races of the 2010 cycle. Redistricting compelled Webster to move into the redrawn 10th District, where he faces Demings, the pistol-packing former Orlando police chief who Democrats consider one of their star recruits. She’s a moderate Democrat and an African American woman who enjoys strong name recognition in the region because of her previous job and because her husband is Orange County sheriff and running for reelection.
The Webster-Demings contest is considered a “lean Republican” race by The Washington Post House Race Tracker, but it once ranked as a “likely Republican” seat. The race ranks 54th on The Fix’s 60 most competitive House races — meaning it could — but is less likely than other seats — to switch parties.
The newly-drawn district sits just south of downtown Orlando right in the middle of Florida’s coveted “I-4 Corridor,” which stretches from Tampa to Daytona Beach. (The highway is a great route for sampling the opinions of undecided voters — but avoid driving it if you can: 2chambers was trapped Thursday night in an epic traffic jam stretching for more than 30 miles amid four multi-vehicle accidents along the highway. All because of a little rain. I mean, really. But we digress…)
In an interview, Webster said he is confident he will win reelection by running an attack-free campaign.
“I don’t do negative advertising,” he said in an interview Thursday. “It’s the playbook of Washington, and it’s wrong. You can’t change the culture in Washington if you don’t change how you get there.”
Though Webster spoke little of Demings — and never muttered her name — he did say, “She’s already bought into the culture and she’s not even there yet.”
By “culture,” he means using attack ads to call out Webster’s support for the House Republican budget plan and his stewardship of the Florida House when he was speaker, including renovations made to the speaker’s office suite. Outside groups, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, are spending hefty six-figure sums to run similar on-air attacks.
Demings said she never expected to enter politics, but local Democrats encouraged her to run after she retired last year. She faults Webster for failing to engage with Floridians, noting that he canceled town hall meetings with constituents and established a “watch list” of Florida activists who oppose him — a move he later said he regretted.
“I’ve been out in the community talking to voters about what matters and saying that I’m not defined by my party,” she said in an interview. “I’m a lifelong Democrat, my parents were Democrats, but this race is bigger than any particular party. It’s about getting things done. The people have kind of defined my agenda – I’ve listened to them, I’m not too busy to get out and listen to people and go to meetings.”
Since this is the final stop of this week’s #5in5, it’s worth highlighting how Webster and Demings answered questions we’ve asked of each candidate: Why do you want to be a part of such an unpopular, unproductive Congress and how do you plan to help fix it?
For Webster, he cites what he did during his first two years in Congress: “I gave back my salary, I actually got Warren Buffet to match it because he made some outlandish claim that he would do that, and he did it. And I sent back almost half a million dollars from my budget. Because the culture says, if it’s appropriated, spend it. That’s not right, we’ll never change anything if we don’t change our own personal behavior.”
Demings cites her police career as an example of how she would comport herself in Washington: “I ran a 1,000-person agency when crime was at an all-time high and also during some of the worst economic times for the city. I had to reduce our budget by millions of dollars while keeping cops on the street to bring the crime rate down by 40 percent. … I believe that people are looking for that kind of leadership: I haven’t been defined by my political party, I’ve been defined by my hard work.”
The final outcome in this race — and many others in Florida — could depend on which presidential candidate wins Florida. If Mitt Romney wins the state by more than four points, observers expect Webster to win comfortably. But if Obama wins, or keeps it close, this could be a race that isn’t decided until very late into Election Night.