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AFP Looks to Make an Impact in Florida Congressional Races

February 5, 2014 - 6:00pm

Americans for Prosperity (AFP) is throwing its weight around in three Florida congressional elections this week. The conservative group is running new television ads in two of the closest battles in Florida but also taking a long-shot gamble in a race that doesnt appear too competitive.

Democrats will be more focused on keeping the Senate in their hands than trying to take the House from Republicans. But they do have some opportunities to pick up congressional seats and they think they have a chance of taking out Steve Southerland in North Florida. Unlike 2010 and 2012, Southerland wont have the luxury of Democrats diving in close and ugly primaries. Democrats are high on Gwen Graham, who is trying to identify herself with her father Bob Graham, while Republicans try their best to paint her as a liberal.

AFP is running ads thanking Southerland for taking a tough line with Obamacare, hoping these early efforts will pay off for him in November. Its not a bad bet, especially as the district is easily the most divided one in the northern part of the state. Graham should be able to count on Tallahassee where state employees will be coming out to vote against Rick Scott in November. Shell also do fine in Gadsen County which traditionally backs Democrats.

But the rest of the district goes Republican, including Southerlands Panama City base. Graham will try to position herself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat like her dad was to win some of these voters over while Southerland and his team will try to argue shes an Obama-Pelosi clone. Southerland has to remain popular outside of Leon and Gadsden counties to win this race, and commercials like the one AFP has up are trying to remind these voters why they backed him. If Southerland keeps these voters behind him, hell be able to win a third term. But if Graham makes inroads with them, she will be hard to beat.

AFP is also running ads trashing Joe Garcia for backing Obamacare. Democrats are making inroads with Cubans in Miami and South Florida, to be sure, but Garcia hasnt had much luck taking advantage of it. While he beat scandal-plagued David Rivera in 2012, Garcia had no luck in running for Congress in 2008 and 2010. Without Obamas and Bill Nelsons coattails, Garcia should be in for a tough fight in November, especially with scandals of his own making news last year.

Garcia has already drawn a flock of Republican opponents but increasingly Carlos Curbelo appears to be the front-runner for the GOP nod. Democrats at the state and national level have been turning their fire toward Curbelo even as he punches away at Garcia. Regardless, Curbelo should win the primary and offer Garcia a major headache in November. AFP is simply giving Curbelo some early help.

AFP is also running ads against Alan Grayson concerning Obamacare. While Grayson might be the Democrat Republicans love to hate (and the feeling from the congressman certainly seems mutual), he is not exactly a prime target. Sure, Grayson lost to Dan Webster in a blowout in 2010, but he came roaring back with a big win in a new district in 2012. Nor are political experts calling the likes of Jorge Bonilla, Carol Platt and Peter Vivaldi, his Republican opponents, major threats to Grayson.

To be sure, AFP will never lose donors by beating up on Grayson. Conservatives will stand in line to take a whack at the combative liberal congressman even if they recognize they have little hope of knocking him off in November. But AFP could also be helping whichever Republican comes out of the primary. There are some Central Florida Republicans who insist they have a chance, albeit a small one, of defeating Grayson by turnout remaining low or dividing the Hispanic vote.

AFP is putting money on a long shot by going after Grayson but their other bets could pay off in November. The group clearly wants to be a force in Florida this election which means Democrats should get used to seeing these kind of ads on stations all across the state.

Tallahassee political writer Jeff Henderson wrote this analysis piece exclusively for Sunshine State News.

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