With U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam vacating his congressional seat to run for commissioner of agriculture and consumer services, a three-way race is shaping up as a serious challenger to the Democrats and Republicans has emerged on the Tea Party line.
The 12th Congressional District contains most of Polk County but also portions of Osceola County as well as the eastern part of Hillsborough County. Bartow, Brandon, Lakeland, Plant City and Winter Haven all fall in the district.
While this has been a strong area for Republicans, there are a growing number of independent voters in the region. Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential candidate in 2008, barely carried the district, winning 51 percent. Putnam did better, winning more than 58 percent while Democratic candidate Doug Tudor pulled more than 41 percent.
These non-affiliated voters will be a key factor come November. Its the fastest growing segment of registered voters in the district, said Fred Piccolo, campaign manager for Republican frontrunner Dennis Ross.
Former state Rep. Ross is the heavy favorite for the Republican nomination. Ross has won extensive backing from Republicans at the national level, such as U.S. House Minority Leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mike Pence. Ross has also secured the backing of many prominent Florida Republicans including Putnam, former Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker and U.S. Rep. Tom Feeney.
Ross served in the Florida House from 2000 until 2008. In 2007, Ross led the unsuccessful fight against an expansion of state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and lost his chairmanship of the Insurance Committee.
Piccolo, Ross campaign manager, said Wednesday that this independence would help his candidates chances in the congressional election.
Its the mood of the electorate, said Piccolo. If youve demonstrated your commitment to independence and stuck by your principles over the party, this is your year.
Piccolo said that Ross 20 years as a small businessman would also resonate with voters. Hes the only one in this race who has created private sector jobs, said Piccolo.
The Ross team has compiled an impressive war chest, raising more than $620,000 at the end of the first quarter of 2010, with more than $364,000 cash on hand.
John Lindsey, Jr., a tea party activist, is also running for the Republican nomination but has not been able to generate much momentum, with less than $500 cash on hand at the end of the first quarter deadline.
While Ross looks almost certain to be the Republican nominee, two strong candidates are battling for the Democratic nomination.
Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards is running for the Democratic nomination. Having served four terms in the state House as well as winning the current position, Edwards has been active on the Polk County political scene for almost two decades.
Jason Lutin, serving on the Edwards campaign as finance director, said that this experience will help propel his candidate to victory in the Democratic primary and the general election. Shes one of the few Democrats from this area who has been consistently elected, said Lutin. Shes a local and understands the people of this area.
Jobs and the economy are the number one issues Im hearing about on a regular basis, said Edwards.
Lutin agreed with Piccolo that the district was changing, but insisted this would help Edwards. The demographics of the area have changed dramatically, said Lutin. Lori Edwards has the ability to reach out.
Edwards agreed in that assessment and noted that more people were registering as independents in Polk County than as Democrats or Republicans. People have had it up to here with the partisanship, gridlock and the bickering, she said.
Edwards raised more than $245,000 by the end of the first quarter, with more than $106,000 cash on hand. Despite this, national political analyst Charlie Cook has been critical of Edwards fundraising efforts. Edwards disagreed with that take and said, Ill have the resources Ill need.
Navy veteran Doug Tudor, who ran against Putnam in 2008, is also running for the Democratic nomination.
Asked what the most important issue in the race was, Tudor replied, Jobs, jobs, jobs. The economy is No. 1 on everyones minds.
A self described progressive, Tudor blasted Republicans who stood for offshore drilling. This will come back and bite Republican candidates who did not want a real policy but settled for a bumper-sticker slogan of Drill, baby, drill. Tudor said that, even with the oil spill currently plaguing the Gulf, Ross and Tea Party candidate Randy Wilkinson remained supporters of offshore drilling.
At the end of the first quarter deadline, Tudor had raised more than $34,000 and had under $26,000 cash on hand. However, the Tudor campaign had $17,000 in debts at that time.
Tudor was optimistic about his chances in the Democratic primary. He said that Democratic primary voters would be more likely to support his campaign on the issues.
Conservative Polk County Commissioner Randy Wilkinson dropped out of the Republican primary race to continue running for Congress as the candidate for the fledgling Tea Party. Unlike many third party candidates, Wilkinson is well known in the district, having served on the Polk County School Board from 1994 until 1998 and then serving on the Polk County Commission from 1998 until the present.
While Republicans are downplaying the threat from Wilkinson, the Democratic candidates believe the Tea Party candidate will help their efforts to win the seat.
This creates a whole new dynamic in the race, said Lutin.
Tudor agreed. This makes the clearest path for a Democrat in a long time, said Tudor. Every vote Wilkinson takes will be from the Republicans.
Wilkinson took some exception to that, noting that some surveys have shown that more than 40 percent of tea party activists are Democrats or independents.
Asked why he left the Republicans, Wilkinson said that they did not stand for a political philosophy.
Ive always been opposed by the Republican establishment, said Wilkinson. Denouncing RINO type, Wall Street Republicans in Washington, Wilkinson said his populist conservative message will resonate with voters in the district.
A strong opponent of gun control and abortion and a firm supporter of small government and lower taxes, Wilkinson said he is conservative.
Im the most conservative voice in the county, said Wilkinson. Dennis Ross is pretty well a moderate.
Wilkinson said the independent trend in the district will favor him. He said that he has done better in general elections than he has in the primary because conservative Democrats and independents have backed him. He said he expected this to continue in the congressional campaign, noting the large number of independents in the district along I-4.
Im the person, believe it or not, the common man associates with, he added. People are tired of parties. Noting that his favorite presidents were Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, Wilkinson said, Im a bipartisan kind of guy.
Like other candidates in the field, Wilkinson said jobs were the most important issue in the race. The key thing we have to do in this country is bring our jobs back to America, said Wilkinson. Globalism has put us on a path to being a Third World country.
Wilkinson had little more than $2,300 cash on hand despite raising more than $27,000 at the end of the first quarter. But this was while he was still running as a Republican.
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