Keller Is Targeted From Left and Right

Posted May 7, 2007 at 6:15pm

Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) is finding out just how difficult it is to be all things to all voters.

In November, Keller defeated businessman Charlie Stuart (D) by roughly 13,000 votes, a comfortable victory but nothing like the 50,000-plus vote margins the four-term lawmaker garnered in his previous two contests.

Democrats almost immediately smelled blood, claiming the Orlando-area district — a comfortably GOP district in the past two presidential contests — will be a central battleground next year.

Keller quickly absorbed the 2006 results, recasting himself as a constituent-minded, free-thinking moderate. But that stance also has created potential problems, because he now faces a Republican primary challenge from a conservative lawyer.

Months after joining 16 other endangered GOP House incumbents in a symbolic vote against the White House’s “surge” plan in Iraq, Keller — who voted for the Iraq War in 2002 — insists last year’s returns and his vote on the troop escalation were purely coincidental.

After all, he said, the Iraq War issue is a zero-sum game among voters in Florida’s 8th district.

“I just beat a Democrat in the toughest election cycle since Watergate, so if [I] have any concerns, it wouldn’t be about running against Democrats, it would be against Republicans,” Keller said. “The overwhelming majority of Republicans at the time I made my vote were supportive of the surge, so I got a lot of negative feedback.”

“It wasn’t a politically expedient thing to do,” he admitted.

Angie Langley, chairwoman of the Lake County Republican Party, said Keller is well-liked by the local party faithful for his stance on fiscal issues, but added that his perceived balancing act on controversial issues already is a liability, seen by some perhaps as little more than pandering to the district’s growing ranks of swing voters.

“Several Republicans that are heavily involved [in Keller’s district] are not thrilled with recent votes, especially his one regarding the war,” Langley said. “Up until that, he was pretty favorable among Republicans.”

With Republican Todd Long and Democrat Mike Smith already lined up against him, Keller has sketched out a battle plan he says will push him across the finish line in 2008: bringing federal anti-crime and anti-terrorism money back to his district, beefing up district-office staff, and voting against “any or all tax increases.”

“The best way to get re-elected is to do a good job in the first place,” Keller said. “The Judiciary Committee is marking up my [Community Oriented Policing Services] bill that I introduced with Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.),” a proposal that reauthorizes $1.2 billion in federal anti-crime and anti–terrorism money for local law enforcement in his district and elsewhere.

“The second focus I have is improving constituent services,” Keller continued. “And third, I’m going to continue to lead the opposition to any or all tax increases.”

Democrats and Republicans alike say Keller’s office has long lagged in tracking down missing Social Security checks and other routine, retail-level constituent services. But with primary and general election challengers lined up 18 months out, local GOP boss Langley said Keller can see the writing on the wall. Even in responding to her office, she said, the change since November has been dramatic.

“I have seen much more activity from his office than ever before,” Langley said. “It’s unfortunate that that standard of service wasn’t always the case. People in his district should have gotten that level of service the entire time.”

In addition to hiring more caseworkers, Keller also says he now cruises around his district on weekends in a recreational vehicle, which allows him to shake hands with small-town voters and those who can’t make the trek to one of his three district offices.

For now, Democrats appear to be watching on the sidelines as conservative talk show hosts soften up Keller over his controversial Iraq War vote. And while it’s not clear whether Smith will be the only Democratic candidate — nor the choice of party leaders — Keller is considered a priority 2008 takedown by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which plans to capitalize on the perceived shift to the left in the changing district and Keller’s flat early fundraising.

“He’s one of our top targets … and it looks like he’s going to face a really tough primary,” said DCCC spokeswoman Kyra Jennings. “Ric Keller is putting himself in a situation where he’s flip-flopping on the issue. Both sides are unhappy with the way he is handling that.”

Jennings also said Keller’s first-quarter fundraising report indicates his waning support in the district. Keller, who outraised Long, his Republican opponent, by $2,000 during the first three months of 2007, claims he simply was giving his weary donors a break.

“I had just spent $1.7 million in my 2006 re-election, so I told my campaign staff and finance director to send out no campaign fundraising letters and hold no fundraisers in the first quarter,” Keller said in an interview with Roll Call late last week. “I worked the phones for the first time this week and I raised $140,000. With mathematical certainty I can [say] we will have between $300,000 to $400,000 in the bank by the end of June.”

Keller, who does not plan to alter his fundraising approach from the previous cycle, said he has several political action committee fundraisers scheduled during the second quarter.

“I expect we’ll do about the same as past years,” he said. “I honestly don’t know the difference between fundraising in the minority versus the majority.”

With more than 18 months until Election Day, Keller also said Democrats are reaching a bit in going after him and fellow central Florida GOP incumbent Reps. Bill Young and Dave Weldon.

“I think the chances of them knocking one of us off is about the same as Rosie O’Donnell marrying Donald Trump,” Keller said. Democrats “have 30 vulnerable freshmen. I’d worry about keeping those folks.”