Sunshine State Battle on the Horizon

Democrats See Opportunity in Putnam’s 12th District Open Seat

Posted February 2, 2009 at 6:20pm

Rep. Adam Putnam’s (R) announcement this week that he will vacate his 12th district seat in order to run statewide in 2010 sets up what is likely to be the first competitive race in the west-central Florida seat in a decade.

While the 12th hasn’t been considered a realistic Democratic target since Putnam first won there in 2000, the district has shown signs of increasing Democratic growth in terms of registration and performance. And now that the 34-year-old Putnam has announced his plans to run for state agricultural commissioner, Democrats say they may have a shot at winning an open-seat contest in 2010.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), who is vice chairwoman for incumbent retention at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said party strategists began seriously looking at Putnam’s district after he stepped down as GOP Conference chairman at the beginning of this Congress and began to signal he might run statewide.

“All the indicators are up for Democrats in that district — and they certainly have some really strong viable potential Democratic candidates that we’ve been talking to, and we expect one if not a couple to make the race,” she said Monday.

Republicans, however, argue that the GOP underperformed in the district in the 2008 presidential race and that the conservative underpinnings of the district will be more evident in next year’s midterm elections.

Two of the early Democratic names being floated in the 12th were also mentioned back in 2000 as possible candidates in what was then an open-seat race to succeed retiring Rep. Charles Canady (R), who stepped down at age 46 to keep a term-limits pledge. They are former state Sen. Rick Dantzler, who was the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in 1998, and former state Rep. Lori Edwards, who currently serves as Polk County supervisor of elections.

While Dantzler was never officially a candidate back in 2000, Edwards entered the race as a moderate Democrat before ending her campaign about half a year later, citing other opportunities in Polk County.

Edwards couldn’t be reached on Monday, but Dantzler, who works at a law firm based in Polk County, didn’t dismiss the possibility of running to replace Putnam in 2010.

“I would say it’s unlikely I’m going to get in, but if I were to get in I would be in for all the right reasons,” Dantzler said. “I’m concerned about the bailouts. I’m angry about the deficit. I shake my head when I think about the Iraqi war.”

Dantzler said he expects to have a final decision by March and until then he needs “to make an objective decision based on the performance of the district.”

Democratic insiders say there is good news to be found in that data.

Democrats held a registration advantage of about 13,600 voters in the 12th district in October 2006. Two years later, that advantage had more than doubled to more than 28,000 voters.

After President George W. Bush won the 12th by 10 points in 2000 and 16 points in 2004, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) eked out a much closer Republican victory in the 2008 presidential race. According to analysis compiled by the community at Swing State Project, a Democratic blog, McCain won 51 percent to 48 percent for President Barack Obama.

At the same time, Putnam’s 57.5 percent to 42.5 percent victory over Democrat Doug Tudor — who spent about $100,000 on what amounted to a largely grass-roots campaign — was the Congressman’s lowest winning percentage since his 2000 election.

Tudor, who didn’t get any help from national Democrats in his 2008 race, is another candidate being mentioned for the open-seat contest in 2010.

While Tudor hails from Hillsborough County, Dantzler and Edwards hail from Polk County, which makes up the largest percentage of the district both geographically and population-wise.

Republican operatives, meanwhile, warn that Democrats shouldn’t be too confident in their assessments of the open-seat race. They argue that McCain underperformed in Florida last year and, looking ahead to 2010, Obama won’t be on the ballot while Putnam will be (provided he earns his party’s nomination). They hope that means Putnam, who was elected with 70 percent of the vote in the last non-presidential election year, has the potential of helping the GOP downballot.

Several current and former Republican state legislators have already been mentioned as possible successors to Putnam. They include state Rep. Seth McKeel, state Sen. Paula Dockery and former state Rep. Dennis Ross.

“Florida’s 12th Congressional district is a solid Republican seat that will continue to elect candidates that fight for middle-class tax relief and job creation,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay said on Monday. “There is a deep bench in this region of the state, and we are working with local party leaders to send another strong advocate for Floridians to Congress in 2010.”

McKeel called the open seat “an attractive political opportunity” and said he’d probably make a decision on whether to run in the next week or so.

But regardless of whether he gets in, McKeel said he believes there’s a high degree of likelihood the GOP holds the seat.

“That said, it’s a difficult environment nationwide, and I recognize that the DCCC would love to take that over and fund a candidate in that seat and I’m sure they will. But, I like our chances.”