Boca Raton, Fla. -- Ron Klein, a two-term Democratic representative locked in a close race, received plenty of encouragement from voters as he shook hands in a stylish outdoor shopping mall here Friday morning.
But he also heard distinct notes of apprehension from some of his supporters. “Well, you've got your hands full this year,” one man told him after promising his vote. Sally Halperin appeared even more concerned when she popped out of a nail salon to greet Klein as he passed. “Listen, we’re helping you,” she said, before her voice dropped. “But I don’t know.”
Klein quickly tried to reassure Halperin. “If people turn out, we’ll be fine,” he said brightly. “A close race, but we’ll be fine.” But the fact that Klein must bolster even his backers offers another measure of the threat facing Democrats in the final hours of campaign 2010.
Klein’s difficulty isn’t noteworthy because his seat is considered so reliably Democratic: In fact, this generally affluent district, which slivers down the Atlantic coast from Palm Beach to Ft. Lauderdale, is a classic swing district. President Obama carried it in 2008, but only narrowly. Centrist Republican Clay Shaw represented it for years until Klein, a former state legislator, narrowly defeated him in 2006, largely over opposition to the Iraq war.
What makes Klein’s difficulty so telling is that he’s facing an opponent, Republican Allen West, who in almost every respect seems an unlikely fit for these preponderantly white, generally moderate communities with large numbers of both Jews and retirees. West is a fire-breathing African-American conservative who has become a sensation in conservative circles with impassioned denunciations of a “tyrannical government” and the Obama Administration’s alleged “appeasement of Islamic terrorism.”
Besides those ideological views outside of the district’s tradition, West has also faced a drumbeat of ethical allegations ranging from unpaid taxes and credit card bills to his association with a motorcycle gang and a lewd biker magazine. In 2008, Klein beat West by a solid 10 point margin. Yet now, in the rematch, the two are running step for step, with the most recent public poll finding a small lead for West.
West’s rise is a sign of the times. One measure of a wave election is that it sweeps into office candidates whose personal or political liabilities might have proved insurmountable in more ordinary circumstances. That was the case, for instance, in 1980, when the Ronald Reagan landslide carried into the Senate such unlikely winners as Republicans Jeremiah Denton of Alabama and Paula Hawkins of Florida. “It’s one of the characteristics of a wave -- you have a lot of people voting for anybody who is not associated with the ‘in’s’ even sometimes knowing that they are voting for a flawed candidate,” says Gary Jacobson, a University of California (San Diego) political scientist who specializes in congressional elections. “The assumption is we’re sending a message, and if the only way to send a message is to vote for a flawed candidate, I will go ahead and do it.”
This year seems likely to demonstrate again that when voters are determined to register a cry of discontent, they will climb over almost any hurdle to do so. With Democrats bearing the brunt of the backlash, a procession of Republicans is leading or within sight of victory despite ethical baggage that in other years probably would have prevented them from mounting a serious challenge.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), for instance, is cruising to reelection though his phone number appeared in the records of a Washington D.C. escort service. Jeffrey Perry, a former police sergeant, is running neck and neck for an open Massachusetts House seat, though he has faced criticism about his involvement in an incident when another officer under his command strip-searched a teenage girl in 1991. (Perry, who was present, denied the assault occurred although the other officer later confessed to the crime.) In Pennsylvania, Tom Marino is pressing Democratic Rep. Chris Carney, though Marino resigned as a federal prosecutor after he wrote a letter of recommendation for a former felon seeking a casino license. (The Justice Department refuted his claim that he had received permission from supervisors to write the letter). Tom Ganley, who is challenging two term Democratic Rep. Betty Sutton in Ohio, has been accused of sexual assault by a former campaign supporter. Kristi Noem appears on the brink of unseating Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), despite a law enforcement record that includes 20 speeding tickets in 20 years, plus citations for driving without a license, failing to stop at an intersection, expired plates, two warrants for failing to pay fines and six notices for failing to appear in court.
In another Florida district just south of Klein’s, Republican state Rep. David Rivera is battling Democrat Joe Garcia for an open seat now held by Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Rivera’s ethical issues include a 2002 incident when he ran a mail truck off the road before it could deliver flyers criticizing him to the local post office; more recently the U.S. Agency for International Development said it could find no proof that he ever worked for them, even though he listed the agency as a source of income on his financial disclosure form. Last week, the Miami Herald added more controversy by reporting that Rivera’s consulting company had failed to file required annual reports in Puerto Rico. Still, the latest public poll showed Rivera and Garcia essentially tied. “That district becomes a bellwether for how big this wave is nationally because Rivera is not a good candidate,” says Christopher Mann, a University of Miami political scientist. “The stories about him are powerfully negative.”