Thursday, November 05, 2009

Florida 8: A Lesson on How Not to Win Re-Election

By Stuart Rothenberg

After almost 30 years doing this, I shouldn’t be surprised by anything Members of Congress do. But even I was taken aback when Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) referred to an adviser to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke as a “K Street whore.”

Democratic colleagues called the comment “absurd” (Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey) and “inappropriate” (Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland), and Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.) even said that the freshman Congressman is “one fry short of a Happy Meal.”

I didn’t meet Grayson during either of his two Congressional runs (2006 and 2008), but I heard plenty about him. My first and only meeting with the Congressman occurred earlier this year, in late March, in Orlando, Fla., when we spoke at the same event.

At the time, a handful of names of possible GOP challengers were already floating around, including former state Sen. Dan Webster and Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty. Both have since passed on the race.

Smart freshmen from difficult districts, when asked about their re-election prospects, will respond either that they are focused on doing their job on Capitol Hill or that they know that they’ll have a tough fight on their hands and will do everything they can to deserve re-election. Some even say something nice (e.g., “he’d be formidable”) about a potential opponent.

Grayson did none of those things. Instead, with not a whit of humility, he proceeded to bash, then dismiss, Webster and Crotty. A Grayson aide has since said in print that potential opponents have decided against challenging the Congressman because “they don’t want to be gutted like a fish.”

Grayson’s problems, from what I can tell, include an exaggerated sense of his intellect to cover up some self-esteem issues and a misguided belief that voters supported him because they actually liked him.

The Congressman has terrific academic credentials. He graduated in three years, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Harvard. He has a law degree, with honors, from Harvard Law School, and he’s only a doctoral dissertation short of a Ph.D. in government from Harvard.

He’s also made millions in business and as an attorney, making him one of the wealthiest Members of the House.

But Grayson’s official House Web site provides some clues to Grayson the man.

His bio begins with a quote from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice, ye shall seek,” and continues, “There is right, and there is wrong. We in Central Florida have sent someone to Washington who fights for what’s right.”

Note that the Congressman isn’t merely fighting for what he believes to be right, or that he is trying to work with others to improve things. His side stands for right, while the other side is wrong.

The bio continues by telling us that Grayson “was admitted to an exclusive public high school,” and while in that school, “he achieved the highest test score among almost 50,000 students who took the test.”

It also asserts that “life at Harvard wasn’t easy. Alan cleaned toilets, and worked as a night watchman.” And he “graduated from Harvard in the top two percent of his class.” Surprisingly, given what he does include, Grayson does not include his SAT scores or his IQ.

Grayson clearly has some issues with who he is and where he came from. And that shows, not only in his bio but also with the way he deals with those who may disagree with him.

Grayson was elected to Congress not because of who he is and was, but because he wasn’t Ric Keller, the incumbent Republican. The challenger won because of a big Democratic wave in a competitive but Republican-leaning district that President George W. Bush won with 55 percent in 2004. Barack Obama carried it with 52 percent last year — roughly the same showing as Grayson. The district’s Democratic Performance Index is only 44 percent, making it a difficult district for any Democrat in a normal year.

Keller, of course, had a shockingly close 53 percent to 47 percent primary win about 10 weeks before last year’s general election, a sure sign of his problems in the district. And Grayson outspent Keller by almost 2-to-1, $3.21 million to $1.77 million, in the race.

It was his money and the mood for change that made Grayson a winner, not the public’s affection or admiration for him.

So where does Grayson stand politically after his “whore” comment, after saying that Republicans want sick people to “die quickly” and after comparing the nation’s health care system to the Holocaust? In very hot water.

Grayson’s comments resonated with some grass-roots Democrats, but elections in Florida’s 8th district aren’t won by those kinds of voters. Swing voters, and particularly Republican-leaning swing voters, are likely to pick the next Congressman.

Republican strategists don’t have a top-tier challenger to Grayson, but given the Congressman’s public persona, they probably don’t need one to make for a competitive contest. A competent, well-funded challenger with some private-sector experience would give Grayson a headache.

Those who say that Grayson will or won’t win re-election at this point are getting too far ahead of themselves. The race is a long way from developing. But it’s already clear that Grayson loves controversy, thinks he can do no wrong and is widely seen as the loosest of cannons. That’s enough to almost guarantee he’ll be in the political fight of his life.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 3, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.