2012 Election

The Dirtiest Political Race in America


The Dirtiest Political Race in America

Photo illustrations by 731; Photographs by Bloomberg; Getty Images

The race for Florida’s 18th congressional district is one of the year’s most competitive and expensive. It may also go down as the ugliest. On the left is Democrat Patrick Murphy, a 29-year-old newcomer to politics and former accountant who’s now a vice president at his family’s construction company. On the right: the 51-year-old Republican incumbent Allen West, a retired U.S. Army officer and Tea Party star.

Since taking office in 2010, West has become known for lobbing rhetorical bombshells. He’s labeled President Obama supporters “a threat to the gene pool”; called 78 of his liberal colleagues in Congress communists; said Democratic leaders need to “get the hell out of the United States of America”; and sent an e-mail to U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, calling her “vile,” “despicable,” and “not a lady.” He also told her to “shut the heck up.”

Murphy hasn’t played nice either, recruiting children to repeat West’s incendiary statements in an attack ad. “Bullying and name-calling has no place on the playground or in Congress,” the Democrat chided his opponent in the spot.

Murphy, West recently told reporters, is a “spoiled brat.” The attack ad that really rankles the congressman features his caricature in boxing gloves, punching two women as a narrator says he “socked it to seniors” by voting for Medicare changes and “whacked women” by supporting cuts to health-care spending. The spot shows West with a sparkling smile that he says pushes a racial stereotype by making it look like he has a gold tooth. Murphy says the ad was a surprise to him, though the super PAC that aired it is funded by his family’s company. “All of the sudden, we turn on the TV, and we see it,” he says.

Not to be outdone, West responded with an ad that shows himself in military fatigues, preparing for the Iraq War—then segues to a mug shot of Murphy, taken after an arrest outside a Miami nightclub on charges of disorderly intoxication and possessing a fake driver’s license in 2003, when he was 19. (Court records show prosecutors dropped the charges after deciding there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed.) Murphy retaliated with a spot that attempts to cast a shadow on West’s military career, which ended in an abrupt retirement after West was reprimanded for firing a gun near the head of an Iraqi detainee.

The district the men are battling for includes parts of Palm Beach, St. Lucie, and Martin counties. About 38 percent of its voters are Republican; 36 percent, Democrats. Both campaigns are touting competing polls that show their candidate leading by wide margins: West by 12 percentage points, Murphy by nine.

Democrats badly want to flip the seat. “Congressman West is the poster child for the right-wing Tea Party extremists who won in 2010, and defeating him will mark the end of their time in power,” Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, writes in an e-mail. Bill Clinton held a fundraiser for Murphy in September, and Murphy’s campaign, which raised $3.3 million through September, hopes to benefit from an additional $1.75 million worth of air time reserved on his behalf by groups supporting Democrats.

But that may be no match for West, whose national following had helped him raise $15 million by the end of September, more than any other House candidate except Speaker John Boehner. West is counting on the ads, not retail campaigning, to help him win. A month before this year’s election, he says he has yet to knock on one door in the district. “I’ve been kind of busy, you know, in Washington, D.C.,” he says. Murphy vows he and his allies will air as many spots as West does in the weeks leading up to Nov. 6.

The bottom line: Flush with $15 million in campaign cash, conservative Republican Allen West is trying to fend off a brutal challenge from a political novice.

Bender is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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