Outspoken Democrat Grayson Vulnerable

Wednesday, 20 Oct 2010 08:14 AM

By Sean Lengell

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Rep. Alan Grayson is hailed by liberals as an uncompromising breath of fresh air and reviled by conservatives as a crass ideological bully.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean says the "spirit of Harry Truman has been reincarnated" in the feisty Florida freshman Democrat. Conservative talk-radio icon Rush Limbaugh, conversely, has called him "an absolute lunatic."

But while Mr. Grayson's irreverent independence helped push him to victory two years ago in his moderately conservative Orlando-area district, his politics, policies and demeanor - which have softened very little in two years on Capitol Hill - may be his downfall heading into next month.

"It's over - Alan Grayson is the surest loser in the House right now," said David Wasserman, who covers House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

"Grayson has rubbed the voters of his district the wrong way. He misread his win in 2008 as an affirmation of his candidacy and his principles."

Mr. Grayson is one of dozens of incumbent House Democrats who are considered vulnerable in the Nov. 2 midterm elections. Many political analysts say that Republicans are well within reach of picking up the 39 seats they need to regain control of the chamber after four years of Democratic control.

RealClearPolitics.com, a website that aggregates data from various polls, shows Republicans hold a 213-179 lead over Democrats in House races with a clear front-runner, with 43 races considered tossups. An analysis released Tuesday by Politico found that 99 of the 276 Democrat-held House seats are now in play.

While not all political analysts agree that the outspoken - and at times controversial - Mr. Grayson will lose, few deny he is in serious trouble against Republican Daniel Webster, a former state senator.

"I think he certainly could pull off a victory and stay in office, but as of now I would think that Webster would be considered a slight favorite, based on everything that's happened in the last month or so," said University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett.

Few independent polls have been conducted on the race, making handicapping tricky. A survey taken in late September showed Mr. Grayson trailing his challenger by 7 percentage points - 43 percent to 36 percent. The poll, conducted by Voter Survey Service on behalf of Sunshine State News, also showed that 51 percent of district voters held an unfavorable view of the Democratic congressman.

Mr. Grayson has hammered his challenger on social issues such as abortion, while Mr. Webster has framed his campaign around fiscal issues, promising to rein in government spending. Mr. Webster, who spent almost three decades in the state Legislature, generally also has shied away from harsh attacks on his opponent.

"I think Webster has played this race smart by essentially standing back from Grayson and not allowing Grayson's ads to drag him into a partisan food fight," Mr. Wasserman said.

While Mr. Webster's conservative views have ingratiated himself with supporters of the "tea party" movement, some of his positions, like his opposition to abortion even in the case of rape and incest - though a campaign spokeswoman says "he would not force that personal position on anyone" - have given ammunition to Mr. Grayson's well-funded attack machine.

Mr. Grayson, known for a string of provocative attacks on his political opponents on the House floor and on cable television, gained renewed national attention with a recent television advertisement that compared Mr. Webster to Afghanistan's Taliban for his stands on women's rights issues - a move many say was a political mistake.

The spot, which took words from a Webster speech out of context, caused a backlash for Mr. Grayson while providing a financial boost for Mr. Webster, as conservatives across the country came to his defense.

The Grayson camp has defended the ad, saying that the points made in the spot are factual and indisputable. Subsequent Grayson ads, including one that spoofs "The Sopranos" TV series, have toned down the rhetoric - though not the criticism - of Mr. Webster.

"I think [Mr. Grayson] has lost his footing a little bit and maybe just trying to be too clever instead of running some ads that make sense," Mr. Jewett said. "He's running a lot of ads but I don't know if they're that effective."

Mr. Grayson is no stranger to controversy. When debating a Democratic health care bill on the House floor in 2009, he characterized the Republican alternative as: "Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly." He defended his comment in the face of widespread GOP condemnation, responding, "I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven't voted sooner to end this holocaust in America."

Mr. Grayson is such an irritant to Republicans that Lew Oliver, chairman of the Orange County (Fla.) Republican Executive Committee, told the Orlando Sentinel that if Republicans win every other race on the midterm ballot "and somehow Alan Grayson still goes back to Congress, I may slit my wrists."

But to many Democrats across the country, Mr. Grayson has been a tireless and unapologetic champion of liberal issues stalled or abandoned by the Obama administration.

"Alan Grayson is a testament to the fact that if you stand strong in what you believe and have principles, you will get elected even when sometimes people disagree with you, because they know who you are and they know what you believe in," said Levana Layendecker, a spokeswoman with Democracy for America, a liberal political action committee founded by Mr. Dean.

Ms. Layendecker dismissed speculation that Mr. Grayson will lose or that the nation is turning its back on Democratic principles. She argued that members of the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus, of which Mr. Grayson is a member, are faring better in the polls than their fellow Democrats in the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

"I think that is a testament to the principled politics that they have," she said.

While Mr. Grayson's take-no-prisoners approach may endear him to his liberal base, it may not play so well with the 24 percent of his Orlando district who are registered independents. Many of those unaffiliated voters who sided with President Obama - and Mr. Grayson - in 2008 appear ready to vote Republican this year.

"Independents are leaning toward Republicans this time out because of their fiscal stance, and Webster has been pretty conservative on fiscal issues, which explains why Grayson has tried to change the subject to moral issues where Republicans are historically vulnerable among independents," said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida political science professor.

Mr. Grayson isn't lacking the resources to get his message out. He raised $4.8 million and had $1.2 million available through the end of September - impressive figures for a House race. Mr. Webster, meanwhile, raised $922,565 and had almost $400,000 available through the same time period.

But the National Republican Congressional Committee has placed a high priority on the contest, committing more than $800,000 for ads supporting Mr. Webster.

"There is a point of diminishing returns here" for Mr. Grayson, Mr. Wasserman said. "He's already spent millions of his own dollars establishing his own brand and thrown the kitchen sink at Webster, and it has only dug him into a deeper hole."

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC

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