Congressional District 5: Florida's Other Nail-Biter

Ed. note: This is the last in a series of congressional race profiles that has spanned 38 weeks.  We hope you found them informative and interesting.  Please let us know if you enjoyed these stories and would like to see more profiles in the future by writing

Some might say the congressional race in Florida's 5th District -- where Democratic Rep. Karen Thurman and Republican state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite are battling it out -- is a classic nail-biting case of what goes around comes around.

Thurman, a former middle school teacher, mayor and state senator, helped map out the new lines of the 5th District to include her hometown after the 1990 census, a maneuver that was key to her 1992 election to Congress.

Today, her close race with Brown-Waite, Senate president pro tempore of the Florida Legislature, is the direct result of the GOP-led redistricting process following the 2000 census, which cut out key Democratic strongholds like the university area of Gainesville, the liberal core of Thurmond’s old district.

The old 5th District, which comprised the Tampa Gulf Coast middle-income retirement suburbs, was also pushed northeastward during redistricting and now includes more Republican portions of the Panhandle.

"It's definitely a better district for Republicans to run in now," said Towson Fraser, spokesman for the Florida Republican Party, who calls Brown-Waite's chances of upsetting the incumbent on Tuesday "excellent."

The redistricting has actually led to a more equal partisan landscape with an estimated 42 percent registered Republicans and 41 percent Democrats.

"But if Thurman was truly the moderate she says she is ... she would not be running neck-and-neck with Ginny Brown-Waite," Fraser said.

Thurman won't be baited by that talk. She said she's confident that she speaks the language of this aging district which, more than many communities across the country, really does put the cost of prescription drugs at the top of its election priority list.

Thurman said she has cast both conservative and liberal votes for her constituents -- from environmental to veterans concerns -- and she believes voters will take her record with them to the polls this Tuesday.

"We knew from the beginning this was going to be a tough race, there were never any illusions of that. But I think the good news is people are responding to the message we've been talking about," she said, noting that she is the only Floridian to sit on the House Ways and Means health subcommittee.

"[Voters] know they have a voice on the issues that are important to Florida, issues that matter to folks here," she said.

"Thurman has served that district with distinction for years," said Ryan Banfill, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. He called the Republican buzz on this race "over confidence."

"These are the same guys who promised us a U.S. Senate seat with the name Bill McCollum on it," he said, referring to the dramatic loss of Florida Republican Rep. McCollum in the 2000 race for the Senate.

But Brown-Waite said the district has become more conservative, and voters are itching for more than just the same liberal solutions to their problems.

"Even the Democrats in this case are very conservative … they don't like Thurman's liberal voting record," she said, pointing to her vote against banning partial birth abortion, the House GOP prescription drug plan and Bush's tax relief package.

She also points to her own 10-year record as a member of the Florida Senate representing much of the counties she and Thurman are now fighting over. She said she has made her trademark issues HMO and nursing home reform, and has voted independently from her party when it counted.

And like many other challengers across the country, she accuses her opponent of duplicity.

"It's a very heavy retirement area, a lot of blue-collar workers, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth people who don't appreciate people voting one way in Congress and talking a different way" at home, she said.

Thurman, who voted with Republicans against additional background checks at gun shows and was one of four Democrats to vote for a freeze on new regulations until existing gun control statutes could be reviewed, disagrees that the race is about partisan ideologies.

"[Brown-Waite] is just trying to spin it that way," Thurman said. "She's trying to make this a label campaign rather than an issues campaign."

The race is expected to be a close call, and both parties know it. While President Bush and Vice President Cheney have both made it down to Florida to help boost Gov. Jeb Bush in his own tight re-election bid against Democrat Bill McBride, the party has made sure that Cheney and other prominent Republicans have made stops in the 5th District in recent weeks on Brown-Waite's behalf.

Meanwhile, Democratic House Whip Nancy Pelosi of California has campaigned in the district for Thurman, who was also chosen to deliver the response to the president's weekly radio address in September.

This is a good opportunity for Republicans to knock off a Democrat in this cycle, noted Nathan Gonzales of the Rothenberg Political Report, which is calling this race a toss up with a tilt toward the Democrat. If the GOP are successful at knocking off Thurman, it will make it more likely that they will hold their majority in the House, he said.