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Race Ratings: Handful of Seats for Grabs After Fla. Reshuffle

Florida picked up two new seats in reapportionment because of population growth. The GOP-led redraw of districts, coupled with a game of musical chairs among Members, has left a handful of open seats. One, drawn in south-central Florida, is likely to be won by Rep. Tom Rooney (R), who decided to run there after his current district was made more competitive. A likely pickup for Democrats is the reconfigured 22nd, currently represented by Rep. Allen West (R), which grew comfortably Democratic in the redraw. In a grand reshuffle, West moved to Rooney's district, leaving the 22nd open and a ripe pickup opportunity.

Other races to watch in central and southern Florida include the re-election bids of West and fellow freshman GOP Rep. David Rivera. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R) may also face a tough race, depending on how reported federal investigations he is facing play out.

Second of two parts

15th district
Incumbent: Dennis Ross (R)
1st term (48 percent)
Rating: Safe Republican

In this solidly Republican district, Ross faces no primary opponents and is a lock for another term. He has a lot of new voters to introduce himself to, but that shouldn't be a hindrance to his re-election.

16th district
Incumbent: Vern Buchanan (R)
3rd term (69 percent)
Rating: Likely Republican

Add this to the list of events that are less than ideal: a front page, top-of-the-fold New York Times story that reports FBI and IRS investigations into a Member's alleged financial improprieties and that a grand jury has been impaneled to investigate the same. A Times article last month reported an apparently growing series of investigations into Buchanan's alleged financial issues. Buchanan denies any wrongdoing.

The Federal Election Commission has closed one investigation of Buchanan, a fact his attorneys trumpeted to Roll Call. But the other supposed investigations leave a politically toxic cloud of ethical questions hanging over the car dealership owner's head.

He is running in a Republican-leaning district that is almost identical to his current one. But that doesn't insulate Buchanan from the impending Democratic attacks. They will paint him as a corrupt used car salesman turned right-wing Republican.

"Buchanan is a quintessential sleazy Congressman," said one influential Tallahassee Democrat operative, "and people don't like Congress."

Democrats see real potential to knock the Congressman's unfavorable numbers up enough to make this race extremely competitive. That hasn't happened yet, though.

"The Democrats have used this smear campaign too many times for voters to take them seriously," Buchanan campaign spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts said.

The likely Democratic nominee is former state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald (D), a college professor who, as a candidate, doesn't set the world on fire. In fact, he lost his statehouse re-election bid in 2010. But Democrats believe a mild-mannered, trustworthy professor who sells himself on his website as having devoted his life to public service is a perfect contrast to Buchanan. Fitzgerald raised $224,000 in the fourth quarter and had just less than $200,000 in the bank at the end of December. It's a good start, but he'll need a lot more to get his message about
Buchanan out to voters. The Congressman had more than $1.1 million in cash on hand at the end of the year.

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