Washington (CNN) — Few freshmen congressmen have found themselves in the glare of the spotlight as often as Florida Rep. Allen West.
Known for his outspokenness, West rarely backs down from a political fight. Some say he picks them.
The former Army officer now faces a fight on three fronts.
But what some see as divisive, West sees as doing the job that voters hired him to do.
“I am willing to work with anyone that wants to do what is best for this country,” he said, “(But) when I go back and I look at when President Obama was in the White House, Speaker Pelosi ran the House and (Sen.) Harry Reid had the Senate, I never heard about bipartisanship. I never heard the word ‘compromise’ used. So I’m starting to believe that these terms only come into play to try and force Republicans to do what the Democrats want,” West continued. “I don’t think there’s anything divisive about me.”
Rep. West avoids naming Communist reps
West entered Congress as one of the most notable faces from the tea party movement that helped Republicans make the biggest shift in the balance of power in the House in more than 60 years. He’s become better known for his blunt style of making a point.
He has claimed a large part of the House Democratic caucus was communist, called Democratic National Committee Chairwoman and Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz “vile, unprofessional and despicable,” and said other Democratic leaders should take their message of “equality of achievement” and “get the hell out of the United States.”
He also compared the movement that helped propel him to office with the movie “The Blob.”
He has sponsored nine bills, including an effort to provide tax credits to small businesses that hire the unemployed, and two resolutions aimed at reducing appropriations to the Department of Defense for printing, reproduction, studies, analysis and evaluations, though none has yet made it out of committee. He has co-sponsored 274 other bills.
But it’s his controversial comments that have gotten him the most attention.
‘There’s no middle ground with him’
“People are not following the progress of a congressman on a day-to-day basis,” said Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political science professor. “They don’t have the time or the interest, but they do have a general impression that Congress doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much because there’s a great deal of conflict and disagreement.”
Koger said that could help lay the groundwork for a strong challenge to West by a Democrat “because of this very conservative class of Republicans who prefer conflict to compromise.”
The district West has represented was carved up when Florida gained two districts after the 2010 Census and West chose to move north to a newly drawn district.
Democrat Patrick Murphy picked up and followed, leaving West’s old 22nd Congressional District — where he began his challenge to West — and moved to the new 18th District.
“It’s not the run-of-the-mill Republican we’re going against,” Murphy said. “It’s Allen West. There’s no middle ground with him — people love him or hate him.”
West served in the Army for nearly 20 years but an incident in Iraq in which he was accused of firing his pistol near the head of an Iraqi detainee to try to get information from him about an impending attack led to his leaving the service.
He moved his family from Texas to Florida, where he hoped to start a new life.
The new district retains about 20% of West’s old one and includes swaths of retirement communities and agricultural land. Portions of the district include large numbers of older voters as well as affluent residents, many of them transplants.
“A lot of that area is made up of new Floridians,” Koger said. “It’s interesting for Allen West for two reasons: He doesn’t have deep Florida roots. He was in the military for most of his career, left the military, spent three years as a civilian in Florida, and then ran for office. That’s not going to matter with the population that doesn’t have these long, deep ties to Florida. If the population itself is largely composed of transplants, they’re not going to care as much.
“And, on the other hand, his military background and the rhetoric will probably do well in (a portion of St. Lucie County) that will appreciate his credentials and his military background.”
Challenge on the flank
West must first win an August Republican primary against Martin County Sheriff Bob Crowder, who says he, too, is challenging West chiefly because of his in-your-face brand of politics.
“Problems in our country are largely because Congress is not communicating with itself and things seem to be in a logjam,” Crowder said. “West is a fine fellow, but he is very confrontational and I think it’s time for members of Congress to pull together and listen to one another and negotiate with the other party instead of calling them communists.”
The National Republican Congressional Committee is throwing its weight behind West, picking his campaign for its Patriot Program, an effort to support Republican members in competitive races targeted by Democrats.
Indeed, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee selected the West-Murphy matchup for its Red to Blue program, which is designed to target the most vulnerable Republican incumbents.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up. Voters gave President Barack Obama a slight edge in 2008, but the same area broke narrowly for President George W. Bush in 2004. Cook’s David Wasserman describes the district as “evenly divided between the parties.”
“Only 20-25% (of the new district) is carried over from West’s old district, which he only represented for one Congress,” Koger said. “It’s almost like he’s running for an open seat. He’ll have to introduce himself to a large portion of the district.”
Murphy and West both identify core issues of job creation and the economy as critical in the race. Both list environmental concerns specific to Florida, like Everglades restoration, as a focus.
But for Murphy, a CPA who left his accounting firm to start a small business, his opponent is also an issue.
“He’s part of the reason I got into this in the beginning,” Murphy said. “The extremism. Definitely running against him and beating him is something that I’m very passionate about.”
West spent part of the spring congressional recess traveling in and around the new district.
“It’s not so much introducing myself — most people are aware of who I am — but getting more (of a) personal touch. That’s why we’ve been out to small businesses and had listening tours and town hall meetings. We had a good balance in continuing to service our constituents in Congressional District 22 and getting the concerns of people in Congressional District 18,” he said.
Communists among the Democrats
One of those town halls set off the most recent firestorm around West.
When asked what percentage of the “American legislature” he believed were “card-carrying Marxists or international socialists,” West responded, “It’s a good question. I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party who are members of the Communist Party.”
After a pause filled with murmurs among the assembled crowd, West continued, “It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus.”
The caucus responded, “Allen West is denigrating the millions of Americans who voted to elect Congressional Progressive Caucus members, and he is ignoring the oath they took to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution — just like he did.” It also asked the voters of FL-22 to “note that he repeatedly polarizes the American people.”
The Communist Party dismissed West’s claim as a “ridiculous statement.”
While he said he doesn’t really believe that members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus are communists, he insisted, “I call it as it is.”
“There’s a thin line along the political spectrum of ideologies when you look at communism, Marxism, socialism, progressivism,” he continued. “I’m just saying this: They share the exact same strategies and tactics across the board from those ideologies.
“I guess people are mad because I said it.”
Republican Martin County Commissioner Patrick Hayes, who was present at the town hall, said West was connecting with his audience.
“He was speaking to a very favorable crowd,” said Hayes, who is also up for re-election and isn’t taking sides in the West-Crowder race. “Certainly by the standard that most people speak, of a communist cardholder, etc, that doesn’t seem to me to be accurate at all in terms of people up in Washington, or the Democrats.”
“Basically, he was talking to his audience and it got out of hand,” he said.
For Murphy, the incident was more fodder for his campaign.
“In light of his recent comments we’ve had a nice reminder to people of who he is and what he stands for,” Murphy said.
West may have found a friendly audience in the roughly 100-person crowd in Martin County, but he simultaneously played to the biggest grievance of his competition.
“One of the big issues is Allen West’s verbal explosions, where he continually says extremely divisive things,” said Eric Johnson, Murphy’s campaign consultant.
“It is a campaign issue because he keeps embarrassing himself in the district and he’s also so divisive that he makes it impossible for people to work across the aisle with him to get things done.”
West maintains he is doing what he was elected to do.
“I am doing what I know allows me to look at myself at the end of the day and not say that I went out and lied to the American people.”
How will ‘take-no-prisoner’ style play among independents?
University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said the role of swing voters will be critical in the race.
“I think much of it is going to depend upon how well the Allen West ‘take-no-prisoners’ style plays with that constituency — sometimes (that) style doesn’t really fit well with older voters.
“He’s certainly the tea party guy in terms of the things they’re interested in. The thing that resonates in my judgment of his policy is that part of his persona now is the deficit and government spending and the whole loss of America’s place in the world. Being a military guy, he articulates that well,” MacManus continued.
“I think this race comes down to more, the kind of persona, public persona, the person has. So if West gets to the point of where this publicity is highly embarrassing, that will certainly help Murphy. But it is an older constituency and they are very concerned about economics,” she said.
With West showing no signs of playing to the middle and Murphy, who has admitted to voting for both Republicans and Democrats, doing just that, funds are rolling in.
“Each of them is the other’s best fundraiser,” MacManus said.
Among Democrats seeking to unseat Republican challengers, Murphy’s campaign says he is one of the top three fundraisers, boasting a haul of $1.75 million since he launched his campaign a year ago. In mid-April West announced that his campaign earned $1.8 million in the first quarter of this year, for a total of $3.3 million in cash-on-hand.
“I think everyone knows who I am and what I stand for … the question should be who is he, and is he just another political opportunist looking for this ability to get his name out there?” West said.
Murphy countered, “He’s definitely branded himself.”