A Very Thin Wall In Central Florida Race
Lawrence C. Levy
Wednesday October 11, 2000
ORLANDO-Linda Chapin is having trouble with a truck-sized frog she bought, a courthouse that is haunting her and a ferocious cherub who won't stop talking about them.
And why not? After all, she does want to represent Disney World in Congress.
Democrat Chapin also must contend with stubborn local loyalty to the Republican Party that makes her an under-dog and Central Florida the GOP's firewall in both this decisive state and suburban America. It is, however, a very thin wall. In a region where the dominant Republicans still all but pray to pictures of Ronald Reagan and refuse to apologize for Newt Gingrich, Florida's Eighth Congressional District is a test of how conservative a suburban GOP candidate can be and survive in a competitive election.
The deadlock in Florida and the importance of Central Florida are why George W. Bush made three stops in the area last week-including a raucous rally at Melbourne airport -that he never should have felt the need to make in a state governed by his brother. It was time and money -in addition to the millions of dollars being spent on ads here-that he is not able to spend in other battlegrounds.
That's why Al Gore and Joe Lieberman both came to a jam-packed rally in Orlando, where Chapin seem- ed care-ful not to get too close to the candidates lest she alienate moderate Republicans and conservative independents who don't like Clinton. Gore, who declared that "Central Florida is the key to the state and the state the key to the nation," smells an upset that is very much in the making.
And Chapin sees an opportunity to advance her own cause and those of women and her party.
From the 21st floor of the Orange County Courthouse, whose restrained elegance and colorful touches personify the white-haired woman who built it, Chapin looked out at the vast suburban sprawl and picked out other points of civic pride she helped create. A park here among the lake- dotted landscape, a convention center there, outdoor artwork eve-rywhere.
Inside, Chapin shows off the framed images and signatures of some of the world's most famous women: Queen Victoria, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher, Sandra Day O'Connor, Rosa Parks, Sally Ride. "All strong, accom-plished wo- men," she said, not having to add the obvious: like her.
In a sense, Chapin can take credit for everything in view. As the former first chief executive of a new form of county government, as a popular politician re-elected county commission chairman by ever-larger pluralities, Chapin was nothing less than the "mother of Orange County."
Now she wants to represent a district that includes much of Orlando, a city that somehow came of age after its suburbs, which, in turn, grew from the theme-park spawn of a mouse, a duck and an animator's dream. It's a race she never would have made if incumbent Rep. Bill McCollum hadn't decided to run for Senate.
And that's where the self-described cherub, Ric Keller, comes in-a neophyte declaring himself an heir to McCollum's conservative agenda and trying to beat Chapin up about cost overruns at the courthouse, about local tax increases and traffic and her beloved public art, including the $ 18,000 frog in a children's park.
Keller, who won a primary runoff against a well-known state senator, was opposed by most local and national party leaders because they feared he was too conservative. They believed that the trends at play in many other suburbs, where Democrats were making inroads by running as moderates, had progressed here and that a proud opponent of gun control and abortion rights wouldn't have a chance against a popular Democratic woman. The moderate Republican Leadership Council ran ads against him; the conservative Club for Growth supported him with even more. And by ap-pealing to the social conservatives who are the party's most active voters-and who Bush targeted in the primary- Keller carried the day.
Last week, after his upset, all the biggies-"my new best friends," Keller calls them-phoned to pledge their support. Short, pudgy and baby-faced, Keller likes to say facetiously, "I guess the future of the Republican Party is in the hands of cherub." He may be right.
If the GOP loses here, any party leader will tell you, it has no chance to retain control of Congress.
But the leaders who felt that Keller was too conservative may be right, too. Almost immediately, as he did in their first TV mini-debate, Keller began to shift his focus-and his Web site-to education and the environment. He won't talk about guns unless you ask him. Even his attack on Chapin's courthouse and frog art is couched in social terms. Although he is a big supporter of Bush's across-the-board tax cuts, Keller talks about how many schools and computers the money Chapin spent on the frog and the courthouse could buy-not how much taxpayers could save. Keller took a page out of Bush's post-primary push back to the center.
But this district still is conservative enough so that a straight appeal for Bush-like tax cuts could resonate with a majority of voters. So, too, could standing up against gun control and for school vouchers.
That's because southern suburbanites are a different species; congressional districts outside Orlando, Charleston, S.C., Atlanta and many other cities below the Mason-Dixon line (northernized Miami is an exception) are more rural in voting pattern than northern counterparts. Religious conservatives, such as the Christian Coalition, are often especially dominant, and not just in primaries.
The demographic change that has had a moderating impact on the politics of these areas and their elections is how many northerners have moved in and who they are. The more high-tech workers who give up on Long Island's high taxes or California's traffic or the midwestern states' cruel winters, the closer the elections will tend to be. The same for the in-migration of retirees from notherner suburbs, where they were just as likely to vote Democratic as Republican and in either case for the more moderate candidate.
But the impact on places such as Orange County or nearby Brevard on the Space Coast in the Clinton era was to narrow the margins of Republican victory. This is not the San Francisco-San Jose suburbs that Republicans have all but forfeited. This is not the Philly 'burbs where Gore should win big and formerly Republican seats should be unimagina-bly safe for Democrats.
This is a place where a Nassau County moderate Republican would be more liberal than the typical Democrat (why a guy like Gov. George Pataki, by the way, would have a tough time bringing Republicans together across the country). This is still right-stuff, Bible-thumping, government-leery Republican country, has been for more than a gen-eration. Even Bob Dole carried Orange and Brevard, though by margins so small that they failed to wipe out big De-mocrat votes in the Miami area and Bill Clinton took the state.
The fear expressed by Republicans is that the same will happen to Bush. In fact, the Texas governor needs local Republicans more than they need him. If anything, guys like Keller and another conservative, Rep. Dave Weldon in Brevard, could have a bootstrap effect, helping to pull up Bush.
So Chapin's task of succeeding McCollum, an impeachment prosecutor who is having his own troubles running for Senate after 20 years as a popular congressman, is tougher than a ticket to Disney during winter vacation. Despite the declaration of many pundits and despite a divisive GOP primary that produced a pure neophyte for an opponent, she is hardly the front runner-not with local political history and habit so strong.
She is trying to hasten a trend that is lagging behind northern suburbs. Her focus on gun control and abortion rights, and her experience, may help her be competitive and, if the shrewd Keller falters,a narrow winner. It's possible that the negative campaigning during the primary may have turned off voters to the newcomer and that he may not be able to redefine himself as somewhat more moderate for the general election so soon after running as a conservative.
Even if she loses, however, Chapin may be able to say that she helped her party carry the country or even the state by fighting the good fight at home.