Will Gulf Coast Still Feel The Vern?

Under The Hood


Surplus disgust for President Donald Trump has Democrats eyeing a wildly unlikely prize on the Gulf Coast: Republican Vern Buchanan’s House seat. Inspired by solid performance nationwide by Democrats in House special elections, though so far few successes, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week announced 20 more House districts in its list of targeted races in 2018, including Florida’s 16th. Is it crazy talk that Sarasota-Bradenton will send a Democrat to Congress? Probably. But is it possible? Sure. Certainly, Buchanan shouldn’t ignore the threat.

For his part, Buchanan in an interview with SRQ brushed election talk off as something that can wait until next year. “My focus is on the agenda we've set up here,” he said from his Washington, D.C. office. Health care, tax reform and infrastructure funding remain his chief concerns, as they should be. He needs to do his job well before focusing on telling voters what a good job he’s done, after all.

“We’ve got an opportunity to get some big things done,” he noted. That’s also true but bears greater risk for an incumbent than making sure road projects get financed.  One party controls the House, Senate and White House, which hasn’t happened for six years, but when President Obama and the Democrats in 2009 and 2010 spent their political capital on, coincidentally, health care reform and infrastructure, their successes were immediately punished with a strong Republican wave in the mid-terms. With Trump’s approval rating floating at 40 percent on Pollster.com, voters can be expected to spank the GOP in November 2018.

But will Buchanan take a hit? That’s a less reliable prediction. For starters, the DCCC includes six House districts in Florida in its list of 79 targets. Buchanan performed better in 2016 than all Republicans in targeted districts sans one: long-time Miami Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. And while Democrats have over-performed in special elections in Kansas and Montana, those were open seats.

Of course, 2018 could be a referendum on Trump, not any incumbent. That’s partly why Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a South Florida representative who won in 2016 in a district Hillary Clinton took by 30 points, decided to retire instead of rolling the dice this cycle. Buchanan’s district in contrast went for Trump by 10.7 percent.

Political observers note this new district is one Buchanan has run in exactly once, when Republicans statewide turned out to deliver Florida for Trump and re-elect Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. Will it be different when Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, rallies voters for his re-election? Or as the most competitive Democratic field for governor in decades fights for an open seat? Plus, local Democrats feel success from a May Sarasota city election that went blue in a landslide.

Yet, Buchanan remains one of the most personally wealthy members of the US House. He’s the chairman of the Florida delegation in D.C. and sits on powerful Ways and Means.

Most notably, Democrats have yet to rally around a candidate, though some folks are already clamoring for a chance to run.

The best bet for Team Blue would be Buchanan’s retirement (unlikely) or his ambition drawing to seek higher office. Buchanan will do that someday, but he’d be late to the party for Senate or Governor in 2018, where Gov. Rick Scott and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam already largely cleared the field. Plus, the bad GOP climate statewide would be more tumultuous for Buchanan than running on home turf.

At the very least, a fight with Buchanan will siphon national dollars that could protect vulnerable incumbents like Carlos Curbelo in Miami. For that reason, expect national Democrats to do what they can to convince local Democrats there’s a shot at winning on the Gulf Coast, whether they follow through with financial support or not.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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