Richard Foglesong

Author, teacher, political analyst, public speaker

Could Grayson-Demings repeat Deutsch-Castor?

Jul 29, 2011

The following article by Richard Foglesong was published in the Opinion Section of the Orlando Sentinel on Friday, July 29, 2011:

Democrats should worry about a primary battle between Val Demings and Alan Grayson if both stay in the race for the District 8 congressional seat currently held by Republican Daniel Webster, who defeated Grayson in 2010. Because history often repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.

The pertinent tragedy—for Democrats—was the ruinous primary fight between Betty Castor and Peter Deutsch in the 2004 U.S. senate race.

It was a tragedy for their party because Deutsch's attacks on Castor left her vulnerable in the general election on the key issue of combating terrorism. Capitalizing on that vulnerability, Mel Martinez defeated the better-known Castor, winning back the seat that Paula Hawkins lost to Bob Graham in 1986.

Remember Deutsch's incessant television ads against Castor in 2004? He pilloried the former president of the University of South Florida for not firing a Palestinian computer-science professor, accused of supporting Islamist jihadists. In the pre-9/11 environment, before the broadened investigative powers granted in the Patriot Act, she maintained that she had done all she could in suspending — but not firing — the professor in question, Dr. Sami Al-Arian.

After she left office, her successor as president would fire Al-Arian, once he was indicted on the basis of Patriot Act-granted governmental powers.

Deutsch's ploy was sly if not dishonest. In effect he said, "I'm raising the issue that Republicans will use against my opponent. If she wins the primary, the GOP will eat her lunch on this issue." As more or less occurred, but only after Castor erred in trying to make the Al-Arian issue work for her in the general-election contest with Mel Martinez. Post-election polls show the terrorism threat was decisive in Martinez's victory.

It could happen to Democrats again — the second time as farce — if Alan Grayson follows Deutsch's playbook in running against a fellow Democrat. Of the two, Demings has more appeal to independents; her law-enforcement career might win her some Republican support, even. But she is new to politics, unfamiliar with the issues and untested on the campaign trail, while Grayson is none of these things.

More to the point, Grayson resembles Deutsch. Like the five-term former congressman, Grayson is pugnacious and over-the-top. Who can forget his calling Webster "Taliban Dan" for his votes on women's issues, or labeling the former state senator a "draft dodger" for maintaining a 2-S student deferment during the Vietnam era? Both Grayson and Deutsch are also rich and accustomed to getting their way. Deutsch was the wealthiest candidate in the 2004 race, as Grayson would be in 2012. By self-funding his campaign, he could escape censure from Democratic contributors, should they spurn him for slinging dirt at Demings.

So why wouldn't he play the role of spoiler? He has an ineffable feel for the jugular, as well as the motive and opportunity. And Demings, like Betty Castor, might prove vulnerable — if she can't handle his rat-tat-tat, if he pounds her on some manufactured issue, say, from her law-enforcement background, and if Democrats tolerate his bullying behavior. The last point deserves emphasis: Democrats lack their own version of Ronald Reagan's famous 11th Commandment: "Thou shall not criticize another Republican."

Of course, Grayson and Demings might not run for the same seat. One of them could run for the new congressional seat south of Orange County that will favor a Democrat who appeals to Hispanic voters. But I'm betting on a showdown in District 8. In Demings' case because the women's advocacy group EMILY's List driving her campaign has targeted Webster, an ardent abortion foe. In Grayson's case because he seeks redemption for losing so badly to Webster in 2010.

So stay tuned Republicans. You'll love this one.