Campaign Crawlers

Too Close to Call

Plan to celebrate a GOP win? Get a nap today. It's going to be a long night.

By 11.2.10

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PANAMA CITY, Fla. -- Parked beside the Steve Southerland campaign headquarters on Baldwin Road is a big RV with an orange sign on the side designating it the "I've Had Enough Express." And indeed, if polls can be trusted, voters in Florida's 2nd District have finally had enough of seven-term Democrat Rep. Allen Boyd.

"We're feeling very good about how things are going," said Southerland campaign communications director Matt McCullough, as he sat in an office inside the yellow brick house that was once the home of the GOP candidate's grandfather. Polls showing Southerland with a double-digit lead over Boyd, but the campaign is "not taking anything for granted," McCullough said. "We're still out there working as hard as we did from Day One."

Despite such necessary cautions against overconfidence, Republicans here clearly expect to be celebrating a Southerland victory Tuesday night at the Boardwalk Beach Resort. If they want to learn whether their party wins a majority in the House of Representatives, however, they'd better be prepared to stay up past midnight.

Gallup, Rasmussen and other pollsters are now reporting "generic ballot" numbers at historic highs for the GOP, but many of the most hotly contested House races Tuesday are likely to be decided by narrow margins. No matter how great the advantage for Republicans nationwide, all politics is local and congressional elections are not generic. Each House district has its own candidates, its own demographics, its own controversies and, especially in highly competitive campaigns, its own attack ads.

Consider Florida's 22nd District near Palm Beach. It was held by Republican Rep. Clay Shaw until 2006, when Shaw was narrowly defeated by Democrat lawyer Ron Klein. Two years ago, Allen West lost an underfunded challenge to Klein (see "Colonel of Truth," TAS, June 20, 2008) but this year, West has become a GOP superstar, raising more than $5 million for his rematch with Klein. The Democrat incumbent has answered the challenge by spending nearly $5 million of his own, augmented by even more spending from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Much of that money has gone for TV attack ads depicting West as a shady extremist. A week ago, the DCCC unleashed a new ad that accused West, an avid motorcyclist, of associating with the Outlaws gang. "Drugs. Prostitution. Murder -- that's who Allen West rides with," the ad says.

Before that latest attack hit the airwaves, polls had shown West leading Klein, and the Republican is still favored to win, but it's probably going to be very close. And the closer the outcome, the more likely that the vote count will continue late into the night before TV networks feel safe declaring a winner.

Similar situations exist in dozens of other competitive districts across the country, so that however unpopular the Democrat incumbent may be, the Republican challenger is fighting a headwind of attack ads. In many of those districts, the final margin will be a matter of one or two percentage points -- perhaps just a few hundred votes -- and it is unlikely a winner will be declared before midnight.

Here in the 2nd District that encompasses Florida's western Panhandle, Southerland's supporters hope to start the party earlier -- although half the district is in the Central time zone, where the polls close an hour later than in the rest of the state.

"We have consistently been ahead by double digits," says McCullough, the communications director for the Republican's campaign. "There are a lot of voters who are angry with Allen Boyd and we think he's going to be held accountable…. [Boyd] voted for the health-care government takeover, he voted for the stimulus giveaway, he voted for the bank bailout, he voted for cap-and-trade… He's voted 96 percent of the time with Nancy Pelosi. He's no moderate."

Confident as they are in their own success, Southerland's supporters here hope to celebrate a big win for Republicans across the country. So after voting today, they'd be well advised to take a nap before heading to their Election Night party, because it's going to be a late night. Whatever the polls say, it's still too close to call.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.