WASHINGTON – Democrats in sunny south Florida seem to have a pretty strong message for their Republican Rep. Clay Shaw this year: any friend of the Bush administration is no friend of ours.
That's a big letdown for Shaw, who has been in office representing the affluent coastal towns along part of Florida's eastern coast, mostly in Broward and Palm Beach counties, for 26 years.
He now faces a strong opponent at a time when some Democrats who might have stayed neutral in the past are indicating that a prospective takeover in the U.S. House outweighs the loyalties and fondness they have for Shaw.
"That is the first chink in [Shaw's] armor," said Stephen Gaskill, a spokesman for the Florida Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Democratic Caucus, who worked for Shaw's unsuccessful Democratic opponent, Carol Roberts, in 2002.
Gaskill said an "unspoken rule" in the district has always been to not criticize incumbents, even those from the opposite party, during the campaign season. Roberts had a tough time getting Democratic support from county leaders as a result, Gaskill recalled.
But Democratic state Sen. Ron Klein, who is running aggressively against Shaw in the midterm, already has gained tacit endorsements from eight Democratic Broward County commissioners who joined a recent fundraiser for Klein, according to a May 26 Miami-Herald article.
"Clay Shaw is a most beloved representative, not just for Broward but for the interests for the state," commissioner Kristin Jacobs told the paper. "But I draw the line between what's been great for Broward and what's been great for this country … I really feel like I had to support a Democrat."
Mitch Caesar, chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party, said that "people have gone indignant," mostly because of activities in the nation's capital.
"I think that is a function of the horrendous dissatisfaction with Washington, with the Republican Congress and Republican president," said Caesar. "Some feel they no longer want the country controlled by one party."
The Florida primary is not until Sept. 5, but Klein has no party opposition. The two nominees will also face Neil Evangelista, who is running in the general election against them.
Evangelista, a libertarian running as an independent, says he jumped into the race to give Floridians an alternative. He says he sees little difference between the two parties, particularly in their approaches to getting out of the war in Iraq and addressing the federal deficit.
"I think nationwide, people are ready for a change," he said. "I don't think it would be any different with a Republican or a Democrat in the seat. We need somebody who will abide by their oath of office, stay within the constitutional guidelines and won't lie to the people."
Meanwhile, political analysts are calling the race between Shaw and Klein one of the most competitive in the country, with the advantage still leaning toward Shaw.
Shaw says district residents dismiss the complaints by county commissioners in the news article, adding the Miami-Herald headline, "Democrats Abandon Shaw," is misleading, because he continues to retain support from his old friends and colleagues on the other side of the aisle.
"I've got good, solid support in Florida from Democrats," said Shaw, 67, who claims he has thrived from such support, particularly in a swing district that in the last two years has shifted only more Republican.
"He still has strong crossover appeal," said Shane Strum, chairman of the Broward County Republican Party, adding he doesn't buy the idea that Democrats are all turning against Shaw. "That's the same thing we hear every election cycle. It's just a lot of rhetoric."
Shaw, who was mayor of his hometown of Fort Lauderdale from 1973 to 1980, has been in the House 13 terms, making his mark as the author of what eventually became 1996's landmark federal welfare reform.
Shaw helped pass the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005. He pushed his own version of a Social Security reform plan that would have provided for voluntary private savings accounts, guaranteed and funded through the government.
He also secured billions for restoration of the Florida Everglades with the help of both Republicans and Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation.
Though it is not clear he would be tapped to take over the post, Shaw is the next in line to chair the powerful House Ways and Means Committee when current Chairman Bill Thomas resigns at the end of the year. This re-election campaign may be just as tough as previous ones, but more is at stake, Shaw said.
"We (Florida) don't have a chairman of a full committee now and we're one of the largest states in the union," he said. "This is a big deal to Florida, there is no question about it."
Supporters, and even Shaw's detractors, acknowledge the congressman has been instrumental in bringing billions in federal dollars to Florida, and that a Ways and Means leadership position would be huge bonus, assuming Republicans keep the House majority.
"[Shaw] is well-known and he's well-liked and he brings home a ton in federal dollars. The whole state would be at a huge loss if we didn't have Clay Shaw," said Strum.
After a dramatic 600-vote win over Democrat Elaine Bloom in 2000, the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature redrew Shaw's district, making it more Republican. He won by much larger margins in 2002 and 2004 as a result.
Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., said the Democrats have been trying for years to recruit a candidate that could beat Shaw, to no avail. He said he doesn't think this year is any different. "[His constituents] like him, they are comfortable with him, he's not a shrill partisan," said Foley. "He's performed miracles for his constituents."
Klein, 48, said he believes he is a different kind of challenger, one with extensive experience in the state Senate, representing the same people as Shaw. He said the congressman's support of the Medicare reform bill, which included the new prescription drug plan for seniors, has put him at odds with the district's active retiree population, and his alliance with the administration on issues like education, energy and the war in Iraq will also hurt him in November.
Klein said he's also concerned about unchecked federal spending and emergency assistance programs in the wake of the hurricanes.
"There seems to be very little oversight. The people in control who ran on this platform of 'let's run government like a business and be accountable.' That hasn't taken place," he said.
Meanwhile, Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has been actively campaigning against Shaw as part of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's effort to turn Republican "red" states into Democratic "blue" ones. President Bush won Florida, but lost the 22nd District in 2004 and 2000.
"(Klein) is a good fit for the 22nd District," said Wasserman-Schultz, a freshman congresswoman who represented part of Shaw's district while in the state Legislature. While there, she worked with Klein, whom she describes as a "pro-business moderate." As for Shaw, she said, "he does not have a voting record that represents the interests of his constituents."
Shaw, obviously disappointed that Wasserman-Schultz is actively working against him, said she was up front with him early on that Klein was her friend
"She jumped on his bandwagon and did it right away," he said, noting that he expects to win the district despite the cries against partisanship in Washington, D.C.
"The atmosphere here has really become venomous (in Washington), and I regret that," he said.