The announcement last week that tea party groups were targeting West for supporting the debt ceiling plan proposed by House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — a plan that could not get enough Republican support to pass the House — was taken as a sign that the movement had started to eat its own. In 2012, West was propelled into office by tea party activists; he’s a fixture on the tea party circuit. If he can’t survive one controversial vote with his reputation intact, no one can.
West has continued to stand behind GOP leadership, saying over the weekend that the compromise deal scheduled for a House vote Monday night was a “good one.” Should he be worried?
Clearly West is a little rattled. He dismissed tea party “schizophrenia” on Friday, yet he followed up with an open letter to the American people explaining his vote this weekend. On his Facebook page, anger over the vote is palpable.
“I can sit up here and say I’m going to vote no, but then what is the alternative?” West told The Fix, saying supporting Boehner’s plan was the only way to mitigate the risk of disaster in the markets. “I have to be reasonable, I have to be rational in difficult times. Do you take a frontal assault or do you look at other ways you can attack the enemy’s position?”
But that anger is unlikely to translate into a serious 2012 primary challenge in West’s 22nd district. First off, most of the “tea party target” talk stems from an anti-West press release citing four national groups: Tea Party Express, Tea Party Nation, United West and Tea Party Founding Fathers.
Both Tea Party Express and Tea Party Nation said that they never signed onto the threat; they said their leaders’ quotes were taken out of context and used without their permission. That leaves United West and Tea Party Founding Fathers, two groups that are neither based in Florida nor nationally influential.
“I think it’s highly unlikely that anyone in South Florida is going to challenge Allen West,” said Apryl Marie Fogel, a conservative Florida activist and the former state director of Americans for Prosperity. “Even given his support of the Boehner plan, he has working in his favor something some of the other freshmen don’t: He has been loud in challenging leadership to a point that’s almost uncomfortable ever since they won.”
Everett Wilkinson, the president of the South Florida Tea Party, has criticized West for his vote. However, he told NPR that he polled the organization’s members and did not find much support for a primary challenge.
“We love Allen West,” said Bruce Besser, president of a local chapter of the organization. “He may very well have to compromise during this whole debt ceiling debate, because we don’t want the country to default on the debt ... There’s nobody in our South Florida group that wanted the country to default.”
A far bigger threat to West is that he’ll be swept out of office by a Democrat. He’s in a senior-heavy district that runs from West Palm Beach to Ft. Lauderdale that voted Democratic in the past three presidential elections.
Republicans control redistricting here and could try to shore up West, but a new state constitutional amendment mandating fair lines limits their power. The Fair Districts amendment requires that lawmakers draw districts that are contiguous, compact, respect boundaries and are not intended to protect an incumbent or party.
Right now, Republicans are hoping to make West’s district a little more red. Even if they manage to do so — unlikely, given the new law and the shape of the district, drawn to protect former Rep. Clay Shaw (R) after he barely squeaked by in 2000 — it won’t be a safe GOP seat.
West already has two Democratic challengers — Former West Palm Beach mayor Lois Frankel and political newcomer Patrick Murphy. While West is one of the top fundraisers in the House, money isn’t everything — just ask former Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.).
There’s talk among Republicans in Florida that West should run for Senate against Bill Nelson (D) instead. With state Senate President Mike Haridopolos out of the GOP primary, there’s room for a well-funded conservative icon in the race. But West has repeatedly said he isn’t interested; when asked, he said he was focused on his work in the House.
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