Will they show patience with two-time incumbent Democrat, Ron Klein, a supporter of President Obama and productive proponent of moderate Democratic polices and reforms? Or will they take a sharp right turn and elect rabidly anti-Obama Republican, Allen West, an untested advocate of extreme conservative ideology?
To underline just how high the stakes are here, note that President Obama came to Florida last week for a big Klein fund-raiser, while House Republican leader John Boehner was here stumping for West.
Klein bested West by almost ten percentage points in their first match-up in 2008. But that was when scores of voters, many of them first-timers, were embracing the Democratic Party's message of change. Two years later, some indeterminate percentage of those same people have lost enthusiasm, patience and active support for the president and his party. Also difficult to determine is the extent to which that loss of zeal for the national party and its leader will translate to the outcome of this key congressional race.
Despite landmark achievements that include passage of sweeping populist reforms of Wall Street and the financial sector, the for-profit health insurance industry, and the credit card industry, President Obama and the national Democratic Party have been called "big government" bad guys so consistently by Republicans that serious damage has been done to their image. Combine that with the slow pace of economic recovery, and some of the very voters whom Democratic reforms have already begun helping and protecting are considering supporting the other party anyway, the one that fought tooth and nail to block those reforms.
It is this environment - this mix of recession-battered, time-challenged, low-information voters and a Republican Party hard-selling a quick & easy way to vent some anger and feel like you've had your day in court - that makes the FL CD-22 race such an interesting and symbolically important one.
The district is comprised of large portions of Palm Beach and Broward Counties, and it's indicative of the current political split in America. The most recent FL Division of Elections statistics show about 37 percent of registered voters are Democrats, about 37 percent are Republicans, and about 26 percent have no/other party affiliations. You can't get much more evenly split than that.
Speaking of splits, Klein is either ahead by 8 points, according to his internal poll, or down by six points according to West's pollsters. Or you could, yes, split the difference and probably get a pretty accurate read of where this race is right now.
One thing nobody in the district can complain about is the lack of a clear difference between the candidates. Some Democrats would like Klein to be more liberal, which is ironic given how often West drops the L-bomb on him to score political points with his conservative base. And some Republicans would be happier if West was more of a mainstream than an extremist conservative. But there can be no argument that voters have a stark choice between two sharply contrasting political styles and belief systems.
Ron Klein is by most accounts (other than his opponent's) a moderate centrist; a pro-growth, pro-business Democrat known and respected in Congress for his tireless work ethic and can-do, cooperative spirit. The non-partisan National Journal magazine reports that he votes "conservative" nearly 42% of the time. He was named congressional "Rookie Of The Year" in 2007 by Politico magazine, because of his success in reaching across party lines and getting things done. Klein currently serves on the House Financial Services Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he is the Vice Chair of the Middle East Subcommittee.
Allen West is a proudly self-labeling right wing extremist, a man with a volatile temperament and an unwillingness to compromise. He's a former Army Lieutenant Colonel with no prior political experience who was forced into retirement in 2004 after admitting both to supervising the beating and personally staging the "mock execution" of an Iraqi detainee in his custody, in order to get information about a planned ambush of American forces. Had he been subjected to a court martial instead of being forced to resign, he would have faced 11 years in prison for war crimes.
While serving in Congress in recent years, Ron Klein has been active and effective. He co-sponsored and helped write key provisions in the just-passed Small Business Jobs Act, which features $12 billion in tax breaks for small businesses, plus incentives for banks to provide them with easier access to and better terms for loans and credit. He co-sponsored, co-wrote and helped gain U.S. House passage of a tough new bill cracking down on Medicare fraud, a bill now awaiting action by the Senate. Klein also wrote a key part of the Iran Sanctions Act that President Obama recently signed into law, with Klein's provision forcing any company that wants to do business with the U.S. government to first certify that they don't do business with Iran.
After being forced out of the Army, Allen West moved his family from Texas to Florida. He taught high school, for one year. Then he was a civilian adviser to the Afghan military, until 2007. His website doesn't mention any professional positions after that. It appears that once he started campaigning for the congressional seat in 2007-8, he did not stop. After losing to Klein the first time around, he became a conservative star on the right wing speaking circuit, and on YouTube. As the Tea Party came to prominence, West's inflammatory anti-Obama rhetoric made him a favorite of its followers, and his national recognition and funding support have skyrocketed ever since.
Here are just a couple of of examples of the Allan West rhetoric and style, quotes taken directly from YouTube videos of remarks he has made about the Obama administration:
"I don't think they care for this country. And I think
they're trying to make it into some kind of third-world socialistic
"This is about fighting a dishonest tyranny. Fighting against people that will lie to the American people and say 'we're doing all this for the betterment of your lives' when all they're doing is creating more slaves so that they can have control over them."
For those conservatives who disagree with President Obama and the Democrats but still embrace the best of Judaic-Christian values, the following statement (which you can also watch on YouTube) that West made at an event last March should give great pause before considering voting for him:
"I was driving up here today, I saw that bumper sticker that absolutely incenses me. It's not the Obama bumper sticker. But it's the bumper sticker that says, "Coexist" And it has all the little religious symbols on it. And the reason why I get upset, and every time I see one of those bumper stickers, I look at the person inside that is driving. Because that person represents something that would give away our country."