West Palm Beach, Fla. – If Democrats had to pick a vulnerable tea party Republican they’d love to take out in November, Rep. Allen West would no doubt rank very high.
The bombastic freshman has spent the past two years taunting Democrats – he called President Barack Obama “probably the dumbest person walking around in America right now,” dubbed 80 of his Democratic House colleagues “communists” and told Debbie Wasserman Schultz she is “not a lady” – to name just a few of his put-downs.
Yet three weeks out from Election Day, West, an Afghanistan War vet, has the look of a survivor. The freshman’s smashmouth brand of politics might seem like a poor fit for the moderate, Treasure Coast district. But West’s outsize TV presence gave him practically universal name ID out of the gate – and an enormous cash advantage – in his nasty reelection battle against 29-year-old construction firm executive Patrick Murphy.
Democrats concede that West could well win reelection; privately, some of them say they expect he will.
If there’s a secret sauce for West’s success, Republicans and Democrats alike say, it’s this: Unlike so many of the calculated, poll-tested pols in the Capitol, West actually speaks his mind. The fact that a lot of what he says is intentionally meant to provoke or beyond the pale hasn’t caught up to West, though Democrats intend to change that before Nov. 6.
“In the day and age of candidates of 30-second sound bites, Allen West provides people with something they don’t see very often, which is a politician who says what he believes and doesn’t really care,” said Chris LaCivita, the hard-hitting Republican operative who helped orchestrate the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign and is now working for West. “The fact that he tells the unvarnished truth as he sees it – people respect him for that.”
That no-holds-barred style was on full display Wednesday as West delivered a 30-minute stem-winder of a speech at a senior facility here on the importance of defending Israel. In an address full of absolutes, West declared that the Obama administration, which has had a sometimes chilly relationship with Israel, faced a clear choice: either stand by Israel or risk the country being annihilated.
“My mother would tell me, ‘Allen, a man must stand for something. Otherwise, he’s going to fall down,'” the congressman told listeners.
Sitting in the audience, Elaine Fandino, a 69-year-old retired nurse, said she admired the congressman’s approach.
“He’s strong. He doesn’t lie to the public,” Fandino said. “He doesn’t not say something because you won’t like it.”
Even Democrats grudgingly acknowledge that West’s style appeals to some.
“It’s kind of what [voters] know about the guy,” said Dave Beattie, a Democratic pollster in the state. “He’s like their crazy uncle.”
Said former Democratic Rep. Ron Klein, whom West unseated two years ago, “West is one of those people who says what’s on his mind. Some people might like that. Others might say, ‘You’re a legislator and one of 435 people and you can’t be a dictator.'”
Murphy is betting that most voters are tired of the act – so much so that he’s casting himself as the anti-West.
Speaking at a gathering of West Palm Beach labor activists Tuesday afternoon, he highlighted his background as a businessman and accountant and said the district needs a sober-minded House member who’s more interested in balancing the budget than launching broadsides.
“Allen West is trying to set some sort of record for how many headlines he can get,” Murphy told the audience. “I want to break a record for how many problems I can solve.”
The Democrat is driving home that message in TV ads. One of them shows a group of school-age kids repeating some of West’s most controversial quotes.
“Bullying and name-calling has no place on the playground or in Congress,” Murphy says in the ad. “I’ll reach across the aisle and solve problems.”
In an interview, Murphy said he was never under the illusion the race would be easy.
“Look, I knew running against West would be a big race, just knowing who his personality is,” he said.
One of his biggest obstacles is money. Though Murphy has proven himself to be a formidable fundraiser, raising over $2.5 million through the end of July, his efforts pale in comparison with West, who has brought in more than $10 million and is among the House’s most prolific cash-raisers.
West has used his war chest to saturate the TV airwaves. One recent ad pointed out that a decade ago, Murphy, then 19, was arrested after a drunken bar fight – just as West was preparing to serve overseas. Murphy has been forced to rely on outside Democratic groups to narrow the spending gap.
“When you’re getting outspent 4-to-1, people turn on the TV and see an onslaught of negativity,” Murphy said. “People get confused and they don’t know the truth.”
Murphy is also facing another kind of challenge: Introducing himself to voters as he battles an opponent who’s almost a household name.
A political neophyte, Murphy has tried to overcome his exposure deficit by hopscotching to events and airing commercials in which he speaks directly to the camera in a calm and assured tone.
West doesn’t need much by way of introductions. The Republican congressman has a following of passionate backers across the state and nation who regard him as a rock star. The parking lot outside the senior center where he was speaking was dotted with cars bearing West bumper stickers and tea party activists wearing yellow “West for Congress” T-shirts. He’s one of the few members of Congress who can walk into a room and be greeted with raucous applause.
“Murphy is not well-known in the district and West is almost universally known,” said former GOP Rep. Mark Foley, who represented the South Florida area for over a decade.
West is running in a district that’s slightly more Republican friendly than the one he prevailed in two years ago, meaning that many voters are seeing him on the ballot for the first time.
Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, who occupies a neighboring seat, said his party needs to educate the voters who have a superficial understanding of West about the positions he’s taken since being elected.
“Congressman West comes into the race with high name ID, and it’s because of the sorts of things he’s said in Congress and the sorts of things he’s said on FOX News,” Deutch said. “But the voters, I don’t think, have a real sense of the substance yet, and that’s what they’re going to learn about between now and the election.”
Read more: POLITICO