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Wexler Sets Off Scramble

Local Democrats Begin Lining Up in 19th District

Rep. Robert Wexler’s (D) unexpected announcement that he will leave office in early January has created a scramble among party officials interested in filling his shoes in his staunchly Democratic Southeastern Florida district.

But Wexler may help clear up that situation if he throws his support behind state Sen. Ted Deutch (D) in the upcoming special election, as some Florida Democratic operatives say they expect he will do sometime in the next week.

Deutch is a Wexler ally who won his seat in the state Senate in 2006 in part because the Congressman backed him over a better-known, self-funding state Representative who outspent Deutch 5-to-1 in that contest. Deutch now holds the Senate seat that Wexler held before he ran for Congress.

Geographically, Deutch is best-positioned for a run at the 19th district. His state Senate district covers a little over half the Congressional territory, and the vast majority of his district lies in Palm Beach County.

Meanwhile, Deutch’s top potential competitors, state Sen. Jeremy Ring (D) and Broward Mayor Stacy Ritter (D), both hail from Broward County, which makes up less than a third of the Congressional district. One potential candidate who could dig into Deutch’s geographic base is Lois Frankel, who serves as mayor of the city of West Palm Beach.

“Ted Deutch is the 800-pound gorilla in the race. Everyone else is coming up with a formula on how to win while it would be Ted’s [race] to lose,” one Democratic operative said Wednesday.

For his part, Wexler hinted that an endorsement in the special election would be forthcoming.

“I have been known to get involved in primaries before, both to people’s happiness and chagrin,” he said Wednesday at his press conference in Boca Raton, according to the Associated Press. “Today, I’m announcing my plans and my position. I care deeply about the person who will replace me and lead this community in Congress, so we will leave that for another day. But I’ve done it before and I care a great deal about this community.”

Besides issuing a statement praising Wexler’s service, Deutch kept a low profile on Wednesday. But he has been making moves behind the scenes.

In discussing potential 19th district candidates after a news conference about his own Senate race on Wednesday Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) said Deutch “leaped out there early. He’s out there making phone calls” to Florida Democratic operatives.

But Meek didn’t make any prediction about the special election except to say that a district that President Barack Obama won with 66 percent of the vote in 2008 would stay in Democratic hands.

The primary, however, “is going to be a humdinger,” Meek said.

State Sen. Dave Aronberg (D), who also represents part of the 19th district, said Wednesday that he’s also spoken to Deutch about the race.

“I think [Deutch] has been an outstanding Senator,” said Aronberg, who despite some speculation on Wednesday said he remains focused on running for state attorney general in 2010. “It’s too early to say whether I’m going to endorse or not.”

While Deutch stayed out of the public eye Wednesday, other potential 19th district candidates were less media-shy.

Ring said he’s “very serious about investigating” a Congressional bid and that he planned to have poll in the field by this afternoon.

Ring, a former Yahoo executive whom Wexler also backed in 2006, said he views the Democratic primary in the 19th district as if it were a business.

“The CEO just left and the two senior vice presidents [Deutch and Ring] are vying for the job,” he said.

“Ted and I bring the same political experience,” Ring added. “But I bring very important and critical business experience, which is needed in this environment.”

Ring, who spent $800,000 of his own money on his state Senate contest, also brings deep pockets and a national fundraising network that allowed him to raise another $700,000 for that race. And fundraising will be key in an abbreviated special election.

“I think it’s no secret to say I will be the most well-funded candidate,” Ring said.

Asked if a Wexler endorsement of Deutch would make a difference in whether he decided to run, Ring said it would not. Ring said he’d make his decision based on his family needs, his career outside the Florida state Legislature and whether he sees a path to victory in the special election.

Frankel and Ritter also said Wednesday that they were seriously considering throwing their hats into the special election.

“I’ve always had a long-standing interest in serving in Congress when the time is right,” Frankel said, adding she is not sure if now is the time.

“I’m considering it,” said Ritter, who worked with Wexler on the Obama campaign in Florida. Ritter said she plans to make her decision by the middle of next week.

But while others were content to dip their toe in the water Wednesday, former Broward County Commissioner Ben Graber (D) announced that he was definitely running in the special election.

Graber came in third place with 21 percent in the 1996 primary that Wexler ended up winning. He ran for the seat again last year as a no party candidate and took just 7 percent in the general election.

In his announcement Wednesday, Graber, an ob-gyn, focused on his medical background.

Graber “is a known expert on Health Care reform and successfully sponsored into law the Florida Health Reform Act of 1993 and 1996,” his announcement said.

Businessman Jose Ruiz is a conservative Democrat who was already in the 19th district race before Wexler announced his resignation.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) has not set a date for the special election in the 19th district, but Wexler is set to begin his new job as president of the nonprofit Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation on Jan. 2.

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