In one of the most closely watched U.S. House races in the nation, Republican Daniel Webster now holds a 7-point lead over Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson in Central Florida's 8th Congressional District, according to a new Sunshine State News Poll.
Webster, a former state senator, leads the freshman congressman 43-36 in the survey of 559 likely voters conducted Sept. 25-27. TEA ("Taxed Enough Already") Party candidate Peg Dunmire drew 6 percent and NPA hopeful George Metcalfe garnered 3 percent, while 9 percent remained undecided (2 percent cited "other" and 1 percent refused to state). Digging deeper, the numbers look even worse for Grayson as 51 percent of respondents said they had an unfavorable view of the Orlando-area congressman.
"Grayson has real problems here," said Jim Lee, president of Voter Survey Service, which conducted the poll for Sunshine State News. "He’s even more unpopular than the president, which is not surprising given how controversial he has been with his rhetoric, overall style and TV ads." Lee added, "It’s fascinating that both Grayson and the president have virtually the same image (a positive/negative ratio of 34/51), but Grayson is actually disliked more by independents (36/47 favorable/unfavorable) while Obama is only 36/37." Andy Sere, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee in Washington, D.C., said the Central Florida district "is ripe for a Republican pick-up, even if we weren't running against Alan Grayson." Calling Grayson's views "so far outside the maintstream," Sere predicted that "a large swath of independents and conservative Democrats will hand him a resounding defeat in November." Tom Gaitens, Florida director for FreedomWorks, said the Washington, D.C-based tea group has focused on the CD8 race "from the beginning."
"Grayson is an obnoxious antagonist to tea partiers and raised the ire of the movement," Gaitens said. "He's probably the biggest lightning rod-type candidate in the nation."
With controversial TV ads like "Taliban Dan," in which the Democrat tried to portray the Baptist Webster as a religious extremist, "Grayson put himself in the crosshairs," Gaitens said.
"It's his character to say foolish things, and he doesn't handle stress well. He'll see this poll and get more desperate," said Gaitens, who predicts a 10-point victory for Webster.
But Webster has challenges, as well. Though the SSN poll shows him getting 72 percent of the GOP vote, Dunmire picks off 10 percent of Republicans and Metcalfe gets 1 percent.
"They have the potential to be real spoilers in this race and could allow Grayson to squeak through," Lee said.
The key appears to be what happens with the remaining 10 percent of Republicans who are undecided (47 percent of all undecided voters remaining).
Metcalfe appears to be a factor with independents, attracting 10 percent of that vote (vs. Webster at 33 percent, Grayson at 42 percent and Dunmire at 2 percent).
Among poll respondents who said their chances of voting this fall were "excellent," Webster retains a 7-point advantage over Grayson, 44-37.
Lee said it will be key whether the "third-party" vote evaporates closer to Election Day.
"A good reference point is last year's New Jersey governor’s race when Chris Christie defeated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine," Lee observed.
"There was an independent candidate getting double-digit support in all the polling (including ours), but by the time Election Day rolled around voters realized it was a wasted vote and he only got 7 percent, which meant Christie was able to defeat Corzine with less than 50 percent of the vote. If I were Webster, I would be trying to convince conservative Republicans that a vote for Dunmire/Metcalfe is a vote for the incumbent."
Webster’s image with Republicans is healthy (58/4 favorable to unfavorable) but 30 percent still don’t have an opinion of him and 7 percent still don’t know him.
Female voters are anything but ambivalent about Grayson -- "They really loathe him," Lee reported. With Grayson's 33/53 favorable/unfavorable rating among women, Webster’s lead among females is much stronger (45/33 over Grayson) compared to a statistical tie (41/40 Webster) among males.
"This is important, because we usually see a gender gap in polling where females tend to vote more Democrat than males, but it’s the reverse in this poll," Lee said.
Grayson's campaign manager Susannah Randolph agrees that the female vote is crucial -- noting that 53 percent of CD 8's registered voters are women -- but she predicted that Webster's support will erode.
"Webster's record on women is starting to get out there. As soon as they realize he sponsored a bill to outlaw divorce, opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest, and voted for cuts in funding to domestic violence shelters, they'll see he's incredibly anti-women," Randolph said.
"Alan Grayson is a champion for women's rights, and we will be in a commanding lead," she predicted.
The Democratic Party also is banking that the district's relatively high percentage of minority voters (34.4 percent) will come out again for Grayson on Nov. 2. Grayson knocked off GOP incumbent Ric Keller with 52 percent of the vote in 2008.
Webster spokesman Brian Graham said Grayson's attack-dog style of campaigning will catch up with him this time around.
"Alan Grayson has been caught misleading voters in four different ads this month -- and it's backfiring," Graham said.
"The people of Central Florida deserve better than Alan Grayson's lies and extreme liberal positions. Daniel Webster is the leader Central Florida needs to create jobs and balance our budgets."
Metcalfe says the Republican-Democrat bickering is self-defeating.
"Voters are disgusted with both parties and will support my election in growing numbers. I could not hold my nose and vote GOP just to be betrayed again," Metcalfe said.
And Dunmire believes that the poll vastly understated TEA's power at the polling booth.
"All the polls to date that involved 'tea party' candidates have shown similar results in the weeks and months leading up to the election. Every one of those polls has undervalued tea-supported candidates and this race will be no different," Dunmire said.
Jerry Dorchuck, a Florida-based political consultant, forecast that Webster will "eke out a small victory, thanks to independent voters.
"The tea party activists will, I think, sit back and look at supporting one of their own vs. the prospect of giving the race back to Grayson, and they'll close their eyes and vote for Webster," said Dorchuck, who operates PMI Polling, a non-partisan research and voter-contact firm.
While the Cook and Rothenberg political reports have rated CD8 a "toss-up" and "toss-up/tilt Republican," Grayson still has an edge in personal wealth and campaign cash.
Sere said NRCC has committed $817,000 for advertising and "will do whatever we can to elect Dan Webster."
"The way Grayson is spending money has negated his advantage," Sere added. "His over-the-top and, in some cases, despicable ads have been deemed false. Even left-wing bloggers are coming out against him.
"Dan Webster is the perfect contrast -- a respected statesman."
As for the tea party effect, FreedomWorks, which has pledged to support Webster with yard signs and a get-out-the-vote drive, cautioned that no Republican should take tea movement for granted.
"You will stay in the office by honoring the Constitution, fiscal discipline and free markets. If you stray, we'll come after you too, just like we did with Charlie Crist," Gaitens warned.
The Sunshine State News poll was conducted by Voter Survey Service, a division of Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Polling and Research. Live calls were made from the VSS telephone call center in Harrisburg, Pa., and the survey has a margin of error of +/- 4.14 percent.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.