Vern Buchanan hopes voters support his economic and environmental message.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, knows how to fight for voters—in both senses of the word. He’ll battle with Democrats over what he sees as job-killing regulations on small business, or with members of his own Republican party about threats to water. But he also knows how to duke it out on the campaign trail. The candidate first won his seat in one of the closest House races in the country in 2006, and has since won re-election five more times in various political climates. Now, as opponents spend millions and political prognosticators hint at his vulnerability, Buchanan wants voters to know he’s ready to fight to keep this job.

“We clearly have a more competitive race than the last couple cycles,” he says. “This is a different environment. But we’ve got a good case to make.”

That includes a record that includes passing the biggest tax reform package since the Reagan administration, while also standing up against oil lobbyists anxious to drill in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s confident voters will reward his history of fiscal conservatism and staunch environmentalism. 

 “I’m trying to address the issues people care about in Washington,” he says. “We’ve got a great track record over time. I think people are very enthusiastic about that.”

In Washington, he’s built a reputation for bipartisanship and statewide leadership. For the past several years, Buchanan co-chaired Florida’s Congressional Delegation alongside Fort Lauderdale Democrat Alcee Hastings, 

“We have great respect for each other,” he says of Hastings. Buchanan’s focus as delegation chair, he says, remains keeping all Sunshine State congressmen working together on the 80 percent of issues on which they all agree, regardless of party. “We find the issues where we know we can make a difference,” Buchanan says. “We have the third largest state delegation so we’ve got some clout up here. It works better when we work as a team.”

Most recently, he and Hastings have fought together for better funding to stop red tide, an environmental hazard now ravaging the Gulf Coast but which last year struck Florida’s east coast hard. In August, the two congressmen signed on as co-sponsors for $100 million in research to fight harmful algal blooms. “Our economy, environment and marine life are under siege by this crisis and we need all hands on deck to help Florida deal with the problem,” he says.

Buchanan notes he previously got $8 million in emergency funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association specifically to fight red tide and related issues. His staff says Buchanan works to look past political arguments. He cites Mote Marine Laboratory researchers, for example, who say sugar and agriculture pollution in Lake Okeechobee is not the only contributor to red tide impacting coastal communities on the Gulf of Mexico. “We know it’s a natural occurrence, but we know there’s some other human factors that go into it as well,” he says. “We’re not exactly clear as to what those factors are, but my goal is to make sure scientists have the resources to clean up the water not just here but in Lake Okeechobee as well.”

Perhaps Buchanan’s greatest feather in his environmental cap has been his record on oil drilling. Buchanan’s first two terms in Washington were marked by huge efforts on behalf of oil lobbyists to open federal waters off Florida’s coast up to oil drilling after a decades-long ban. By early 2010, then-Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and most Republicans in the Congressional delegation favored drilling, and Democratic President Barack Obama was entertaining proposals, but Buchanan said the risk of disaster remained too high.

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Then the Deepwater Horizon disaster, when a BP oil rig exploded in 2010, killing 11 rig workers and releasing an estimated 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Immediately, state politics shifted against drilling. This January, Buchanan let the Trump administration know Florida’s lawmakers would fight any consideration of drilling off the state’s coasts. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for now has backed off of any plan to open Florida waters to drilling. Buchanan feels confident the delegation will stand with him regardless of party and make sure the administration doesn’t change its mind.

“Today, all of us are concerned about offshore drilling. Everything has changed,” he says. “In some states, both Democrats and Republicans are more open-minded to it, like in Texas and Louisiana, but that’s why we have to fight collectively as a team. This region has got the most to lose.”

Despite all this, Buchanan regularly comes up in the list of Florida congressmen who could face a difficult threat from Democrats this fall. But that’s nothing new. Buchanan’s never been given a pass when it comes to re-election in this politically diverse district, and never failed to win voters over anyway.

Part of that comes from knowing his district and its needs well. He’s staunchly defended social security while representing a constituency where a third of citizens are 65 or older. And Buchanan’s history in the region dates back before his time in office. The Longboat Key Republican raised his sons in Sarasota; both remain active in the business community and son James is now running for a state House seat. Buchanan previously chaired the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce for two consecutive years.  He also chaired the Florida Chamber of Commerce, an influential group setting the business agenda at the state level.

This year, Buchanan focused on popular issues he says reflect the views of constituents regardless of party. In July, he sponsored new legislation that would require food companies to label genetically modified food, something his says a vast majority of voters in the region—particularly the Sarasota area—want when they shop.

“I err on the side of consumers, and the people who buy products,” Buchanan says. “It’s important to a lot of people, so they can make any decision they want in terms of what they buy.” An avid cyclist himself, Buchanan says District 16 boasts some of the most educated and enthusiastic voters in the country. “I see a lot of people who are more health conscious than they were 10 years ago.”

Buchanan also co-chairs the Animal Protection Caucus in Congress, and this year was named a Leading Voice Legislator by the U.S. Humane Society for advocating against animal testing and for keeping more species of animals on the federal Endangered Species list.

But if there’s an area he’s regularly come under attack so far this cycle, its on economic policy. The congressman voted in favor of a major tax package this year criticized for disproportionately favoring the wealthiest members of society. And critics estimate Buchanan, ranked by Time magazine this year as the 8th wealthiest member of the U.S. House, personally enjoyed a $2.5 million windfall in corporate and personal tax cuts. That Buchanan’s first vote on the tax package took place the same day he pulled a loan for a new $3.5 million Ocean Alexander yacht gave fodder to outside spending groups, and the political committee Floridians for a Fair Shake has sendt mailers and purchased television ad space to hammer Buchanan.

“It’s totally dishonest,” Buchanan says. “You don’t just decide to go buy a boat on any given day. I’ve been voting for 30 years.” So the tax cut played no role in purchase? “No,” he makes clear. “One thing is not connected to the other.” But he says voters should take note of the dark money Fair Shake spent on the race, more than $1 million in anti-Buchanan advertisements so far. “We don’t even know who the dark money is from,” he says, “but the bottom line is it was spent.”

As for this vote, he says working families will feel the benefit of tax reform. About 90 percent of Americans will feel some relief. The average household, he said, will reclaim $2,400 each year in reduced taxes under the new code. And if Democrats feel like that’s a place Buchanan looks vulnerable, he’s happy to fight on the issue. At a grassroots straw poll organized by the Republican Party of Sarasota County, Buchanan campaigned on the economic platform. From a Robarts Arena stage, Buchanan lambasted Obama for overseeing the slowest economic recovery ever documented while growing the national debt to $10 trillion. “We just had 4.1-percent growth in the last quarter,” he raved. 

“We are at a crossroads, and this is the biggest election event in our history,” he told the crowd. “Did you see what just happened in New York? The Democrats elected a socialist,” he said, referencing a recent primary upset by left-wing candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “Bernie Sanders and company, that’s where the energy is. He’s not a Democrat. He’s not an independent. He’s a socialist.”

The Buchanan campaign labels David Shapiro, the Democrat challenging him this year, a hypocrite on the issue. Nearly every time Shapiro has named a corporation that benefits from Buchanan’s economic policies, whether it be Walmart or Smith & Wesson, the Buchanan team looked through David Shapiro’s stock portfolio and found he owned stock in the company, often through individual stock purchases. “I’ll let that speak for itself,” Buchanan says. 

Republicans still see reason for confidence in Buchanan. Trump won this district in 2016 by almost 11 percent over Clinton. A few prognosticators say Buchanan must be careful of a large Democratic wave development, but the Buchanan camp notes legendary election predictor Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight model gives Buchanan a 7 out of 8 chance of winning, as good as any Florida congressman in a competitive race.

And as much as Buchanan has stressed an appeal to moderate voters, he’s also offering plenty of motivation to the base. At that straw poll event, he closed his speech with plenty of red meat. “The Democrats want open borders—and by the way we need to make English the official language,” he said to cheers. “Thank you. God bless. And God bless the United States of America.”



David Shapiro hopes voters are ready for change in District 16.


As Sarasota attorney David Shapiro steps away from the microphone at the Southgate Community Center, he feels revved up for the coming general election fight. “Just judging from the crowd tonight and the voters I’ve talked to,” Shapiro says, “Democrats are ready, riled up and enthusiastic.”  Shapiro needs just that if he wants to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a House Ways and Means Committee member who has represented Southwest Florida for the past 12 years. 

Shapiro has reason to hope. He’s attracted more national attention to the race than any Democrat in a decade, running in a mid-term election two years after the election of a new Republican administration—circumstances that historically lead to gains for the minority party.

In August, Shapiro won the Democratic nomination over 2016 party nominee Jan Schneider, though he might have hoped for a larger election margin. He ended up besting Schneider with 54.7 percent of the vote, a little less than a 10-point spread. In Sarasota County, his lead was more pronounced—61.2 percent. But in Manatee County he edged out Schneider with just 51.3 percent, and in Hillsborough County, he actually lost to Schneider by a handful of votes. This despite Shapiro spending almost $866,000 in the primary compared to the less than $17,000 spent by Schneider.

Shapiro dismisses concerns about party unity. “We had a civil primary,” he said. “From what I see, we are all going to come together here. In fact, I can sense it already.”

It’s no surprise Shapiro performed best in the Sarasota area. He’s run in the county before; he ran for state House in 2006 and lost to Republic Doug Holder by just 749 votes. A long-time personal injury attorney, he’s been involved in business and community organizations here for more than three decades, serving as a trustee member of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and on the board of directors for the Sarasota Film Festival. He’s treasurer for Children First and a long-time member of the Sarasota Civic League.

“I have been practicing law and representing the people in this community for 30 years,” Shapiro says. “I spent my life, at least my professional life, fighting big corporations, abusive insurance companies and sometimes the incompetent federal government. That’s what I’ve been doing in the 16th District for years, and I’m taking the same fight to Washington. The people who follow me and will vote for me understand that’s just who I am.”

Behind Shapiro’s suntan complexion and fashionable suits, the candidate hopes people see an advocate of the little guy. On the Labor Day weekend following the primary election, Shapiro could be found in a fisherman’s shirt and boat shoes walking the beaches around the Palma Sola Causeway, cleaning up dead fish washed ashore in the wake of red tide blooms savaging Florida’s Gulf coast. The event served a political purpose, of course, with Shapiro volunteering his time for to help the community in a time of crisis, but also critiquing federal policies he said contribute to the harmful algal blooms.

“There’s a lot more work to be done and Washington policies to change to protect our water and beaches,” Shapiro said. “We’ve got to protect our beautiful beaches and right now, we’re in a crisis. So it’s good we all volunteer and come together this morning to try and help the situation. When I get to Washington, we’re going to fix this problem.”

He’s been critical of the Trump administration’s loosening of environmental regulations and polluters, and alleges Buchanan has created a false public image of himself as an environmental champion. While Buchanan has been an opponent of offshore oil drilling, Shapiro says the incumbent has been complicit in letting Big Sugar pollute the Everglades and contribute to blue-green algae discharges from Lake Okeechobee, which environmentalists in turn say can contribute nutrient loading that fuels red tide. 

In contrast, Shapiro refuses to accept any money from sugar-affiliated groups. He’s been endorsed by BullSugar, a political group focused on stopping pollution into Lake Okeechobee, and wants government to acquire more land from sugar and other agriculture entities so that less nutrients get discharged into the lake and so a reservoir can be set up to prevent more discharges into Lake Okeechobee. Scientists with the group say those discharges cause blue-green algal blooms, and also that when the freshwater reaches estuaries that the nutrients feed red tide.

“Everyone is concerned about this now—Republicans, Democrats and NPA (no-party-affiliation) voters—in light of what we’re fighting now with red tide,” Shapiro says. “Here is what we are fighting for.”

Shapiro’s campaign staff jokes that the health-focused candidate won’t even put sugar in his coffee, partly so that he doesn’t support the industry polluting the waterways.

Meanwhile, Shapiro says Buchanan hasn’t stood up in a meaningful way to stop global warming and restrict other oil expansions like the XL pipeline. Shapiro, in contrast, has made environmental protection a critical part of his party platform, along with an expansion of affordable healthcare options. He’s also been deeply critical of Buchanan’s tax policies, which he says have benefitted the rich at the expense of a healthy middle class.

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Along those lines, his campaign has hammered Buchanan for casting his first vote on a Trump-backed tax cut on the same day he pulled a loan to buy a new Ocean Alexander yacht. While likely a coincidence, that purchase, made public on Buchanan’s Congressional financial disclosures, has also been the subject of a guerrilla marketing effort by the outside political action committee Floridians for a Fair Shake. That group offered a $500 cash reward for photographs of Buchanan’s new yacht—none have surfaced so far—and sent an actor wearing a fancy captain’s hat dragging a model yacht to area farmers markets to sarcastically gloat about how the tax cut last year allowed everyone in the district to buy a new luxury boat.

That group, though, has also served as a magnet for criticism of Shapiro’s campaign. A classic “dark money” situation, Floridians for a Fair Shake doesn’t have to disclose the original source of its financing. The group originally planned to invest in “education campaigns” criticizing Florida Reps. Buchanan and Brian Mast, R-Stuart, but in August announced that it planned instead to devote most of its resources solely to Buchanan this fall. 

Federal law forbids the PAC and Shapiro from coordinating their message in any way. But Shapiro has often retweeted new attack ads and information pieces put out by the Fair Shake group, sometimes before media take notice of the new material. Still, Shapiro says he simply follows the group, and has never had any communication with anybody in the organization.

“None. At. All,” he stresses. “I don’t understand where that’s coming from. It’s unequivocally untrue. We’re not working with them in any way. Buchanan has done some things that people don’t appreciate. That’s it.” The PAC spending could close the resource gap between the incumbent and the challenger. As of mid-August, Buchanan had $2.1 million in cash on hand to spend in the election, as opposed to Shapiro’s $440,000.

But Shapiro, who can tap further into personal finances in the race and hopes to see more funds come to his campaign with the Democratic primary done, sees a real shot at defeating Buchanan in the fall.

While a St. Pete Polls survey in early August showed Buchanan with a 9.5-percent edge in support among likely voters in the district, Shapiro’s campaign days after the primary released an internal poll painting a rosier picture for the challenger. The ALG Research poll still showed Buchanan winning, by just 48 percent to Shapiro’s 44 percent. A further dig into the numbers showed Shapiro with a 22-percent edge among independent voters.

The promising results were enough to get Shapiro on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Red to Blue” list of 73 candidates it believes has the potential to flip Republican districts.

“I’m extremely proud of our people-powered campaign,” says Shapiro. “Our story of fighting for Florida families and against government incompetence, big insurance and pharmaceutical companies is resonating with voters, and this poll shows that people are ready to bring some change to Washington.” 

But that’s also sharpened pushback from the Buchanan campaign, which has dived into Shapiro’s own financial disclosures and discovered the Democrat holds quite a few stocks for big insurance and pharmaceutical companies—not to mention stock in gun manufacturers and corporations like Walmart.

Shapiro’s campaign dismissed the criticism. “Congressman Buchanan has used his time in Washington to line his own pockets, so he assumes that’s what everyone does,” reads an official statement from the campaign, which then goes on to talk more about Buchanan’s yacht.

Regardless, the Democrat feels confident he can turn the Congressional race into one of the most important in the state of Florida this fall. Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, two prominent political prognosticators that donors look toward to identify competitive races, both moved District 16 from the “Likely Republican” to the “Leans Republican” column in their House rankings. Shapiro hopes to bring the races to the “Toss-Up” category soon.

“Here’s what we’re fighting for,” Shapiro says. “We want voters to have an informed decision come November. If we can do that, I really believe we can win.”