One thing all political observers are certain of now: Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., desperately wants to keep his job.
But, what’s equally unclear is why would Florida Republicans try to snatch it away from him?
There’s been much chatter about that from Washington, D.C., to the idyllic retirement corridors of Boca Raton and Palm Beach. It all started when the state’s Republican-controlled legislature took knives to the Sunshine State’s political map, effectively cutting the superstar cable news Congressman out of his own 22nd district by molding it into a Democratic stronghold.
But, that’s ok, says West, who simply plays the game back and decides to move into the newly drawn 18th district which is less Democratic than his current one. The new 18th contains a majority of voters from the 16th, which is currently overseen by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Fla.
“Congressman Rooney is a statesman and has been an honorable public servant to the constituents of Florida’s 16th Congressional district,” said West in a statement. “It is my goal to continue the success Congressman Rooney has had in Florida’s 16th Congressional district in the newly proposed 18th district. I welcome the challenges and excitement that lie ahead.”
Still, West’s sudden and very forced move seems peculiar for a number of reasons. First: Republicans like to win. While still feeling comfortable about their prospects for maintaining a majority in the U.S. House this November, Republican hacks shift uncomfortably at a number of general polling indicators. House Democrats were celebrating a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll that showed voters would support a Democratic candidate over a Republican candidate in their specific district by 4 points: 48 percent to 44 percent.
And as the Republican presidential primary drags on, with the candidates engaged in an ugly meat grind of nasty campaign ads, debate dramas and rhetorical gaffes exposing the party’s bigoted underbelly, observers point to a GOP image problem. Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich slugging it out over national airwaves only weakens the eventual nominee — and strengthens President Obama’s position in November.
For Republicans, Florida is all-important. An amateur strategist would assume that the state GOP would do everything in its power to keep a grip on its majority of Congressional seats in a critical battleground state. Right now, out of 25 House seats in the palm tree and hurricane state, Republicans hold 19.
And while that’s a comfortable majority, why risk losing one when voters could get finicky, take it out on Republicans and vote all the way down a Democratic ticket?
It’s a risk the state’s GOP leadership either missed or deliberately dismissed in remapping West’s Democratic-leaning 22nd. Sources say it wasn’t an accident. A Republican strategist close to national and state leaders, speaking to the Tribune on condition of anonymity, says “West is being hosed.”
“He’s becoming a liability. He makes the state look bad, and, frankly, he’s attracting a bit too much negative attention to leadership on and off the Hill,” snorted the source. “That’s why they like Scott — he’s quiet and he’s easy to get along with.”
That comment adds another interesting angle for Republicans, continually smarting from the lack of diversity in its Congressional ranks. West is one of two African-American Republicans in the current Congress; the other is Rep. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a fast rising star who is rarely found on cable talk shows, but was just picked as one of GQ Magazine’s “50 Most Powerful People in Washington” — after less than one full term.
Scott was one of only two Black people on that list, a slight not missed by longtime Black politicos (some thinking about a quiet boycott of GQ). And, he’s not an official Congressional Black Caucus member.
If Republicans have a diversity problem, why would they actively seek to cut the number of Black Republicans in Congress down from a paltry two to an embarrassing one?
The question becomes a bit more peculiar, considering Congressional Republicans find themselves in a fundraising crunch compared to their Democratic counterparts: Allen West is one of the party’s most prolific fundraisers. He ranks #19 on a list of the Top 25 Republican fundraisers during the 2011–2012 period, raising over $2 million dollars. He is the only Black member of Congress to make the Top 25 list for either Democrats or Republicans; with the exception of President Obama (who topped both Democrats and Republicans with a $46 million official pull last year), West is the only African-American elected official to make that list. Herman Cain, who suspended his presidential race in early December, was the only other African American, despite the fact he is not an elected official.
West has the numbers, and he has the national voice and following. Why crucify him with a redistricting pen?
Insiders point to West’s mouth as his biggest problem. Each day brings another controversial, off-the-cuff comment from the conservative firebrand. He is more popular for his rhetorical fire bombs and sling shots across the partisan aisle than he is for groundbreaking legislative accomplishments. And, a larger problem is that he loves it. While signs point to Republican leadership eager to tone down the acerbic messaging and move away from controversial statements that make the tea party element giddy, West still pushes the envelope, from constant Molotov cocktails about “Blacks on the Democrat plantation” to unloading a freestyle torrent of talking point missiles at Democratic National Committee Chair and fellow Floridian Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schulz, D-Fla.
“We need to let President Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and my dear friend the chairman of the Democrat National Committee, we need to let them know that Florida ain’t on the table,” said West, unloading yet again on favorite tea party bogeymen and women. “Take your message of equality of achievement, take your message of economic dependency, take your message of enslaving the entrepreneurial will and spirit of the American people somewhere else. You can take it to Europe, you can take it to the bottom of the sea, you can take it to the North Pole, but get the hell out of the United States of America.”
He might as well have ripped off his shirt, beat his chest and did a 2004 Howard Dean Iowa imitation when he added amid cheers: “Yeah, I said ‘hell.’”
That’s the kind of political “hell” that makes establishment Republicans squirm — just like they’re doing now as the GOP primary battle drags on with insurgent former House Speaker Newt Gingrich now the party stepchild. Others point to former governor and current frontrunner Mitt Romney as a prominent anti-West source, too. Romney wants a clean, no-drama campaign if he can help it, and tea party candidates like West are unpredictable. And with tea party polling numbers dropping as more Americans are blaming them for unnecessary gridlock in Washington, country club Party of Lincolnites are trying to play it cool, slowly finding ways to quietly disassociate themselves from the rabble rousing “Don’t Tread on Me’s.”
“Get ready for the all new GOP, under the lead of Mitt Romney. It’s a GOP where the tea party won’t be welcome, where the federal government will continue to bail out banks and unions and everyone who’s anyone will continue to make money — except of course you and me,” said TownHall.com’s John Ranson, reflecting an uneasy mood among conservative hardliners that Romney is already controlling the party factions.
In the meantime, West is not as crazy as his rhetoric lets on.
There is pure political calculation when West publicly makes enemies, a perpetual campaign stump in a quest to paint himself as the Washington outsider. It’s a balancing act based on his need for support from the national tea party grassroots, an apparatus that accounts for a large chunk of his money, as 56 percent of his campaign contributions come from sources outside the district.
But, it’s also a way for West to reestablish ties with a tea party rank and file that had soured on him in the past year as he not only joined their archenemy Congressional Black Caucus, but he also voted for Free Trade Agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. West was showing signs of becoming a real legislator, and the tea party wants unapologetic activists on Capitol Hill. He’ll need to refurbish his tea party bona fides as a way to get both their money and boots-on-the-ground support come November.