Rep. Vern Buchanan lives in a world where you're guilty until proven innocent. And with the help of a muckraking press, Democrats are hoping they can finally knock out the three-term congressman with a campaign that remains long on smoke and short on fire.
Buchanan, R-Sarasota, has had a giant target on his back since 2006, when he narrowly beat Christine Jennings in an election that was as closely and hotly contested as Bush vs. Gore six years earlier.
Declared the winner after months of recounts and ballot examinations, Buchanan bucked a Democratic wave that rolled across the country. Neither the Democrats nor the left-leaning local media have ever forgotten.
In the run-up to the 2008 election, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, backed by billionaire George Soros, filed a dozen lawsuits alleging financial and ethical improprieties against Buchanan. All 12 allegations were dismissed and the attorney bringing the cases was reprimanded in court.
Unfazed, CREW shopped its complaints to the Federal Election Commission. After a three-year investigation, the bipartisan FEC dismissed the case, unanimously, on a 5-0 vote.
Digging for more incriminating allegations, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee continues to bang the drum. And why not? Buchanan, a high-profile Sarasota businessman, heads the fundraising efforts for the National Republican Congressional Committee, and the newly drawn 16th District turned slightly bluer under reapportionment (48 percent of its voters cast ballots for Barack Obama in 2008).
"Vern had to spend a significant amount of money in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee to fight for his seat in 2006," said a source close to the situation but unaffiliated with the campaign.
"The Democrats will not let this go. They feel they're entitled to this seat. Christine Jennings (who came within 500 votes of beating Buchanan in 2006) was blown out in 2008. Now they want payback," said the source, a former federal election official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
After Buchanan whipped a nominal Democratic foe in 2010, the DCCC turned to Keith Fitzgerald, a former state representative and New College professor.
Though Fitzgerald was a prodigious fundraiser during his four years in the Florida House, he was ousted by Ray Pilon in 2010. Pilon, a one-term Sarasota County commissioner, was outspent roughly 3-to-1 by Fitzgerald.
GOP strategists say Fitzgerald's weak performance in 2010 should make him a pushover this year.
Internal polls show Buchanan leading Fitzgerald by 26 points, but local media outlets are determined to whip up a horse race.
"They're in love with Fitzgerald because he's an ideal Democratic candidate -- a liberal political science professor," a GOP strategist said on background.
Yet ideology appears to play only a tangental role in this campaign. The news feed on Fitzgerald's homepage is replete with recycled stories about Buchanan's purported improprieties, and the local press, as well as the New York Times, continues to publish warmed-over articles on his alleged travails.
But is there anything there?
The Bradenton Herald reported that the Office of Congressional Ethics (essentially the staff of the House Ethics Committee) found there was "substantial reason to believe" Buchanan attempted to influence the testimony of Sam Kazran, a former business partner who was a witness during the FEC investigation into the congressman's fundraising.
Kazran testified during the FEC investigation that he reimbursed employees of the car dealership who had contributed to Buchanan's campaigns.
The report asks the Ethics Committee to consider whether Buchanan violated federal bribery, obstruction and witness tampering laws -- all of which have criminal penalties.
But Buchanan did not appear before the OCE to address the allegations, and the FEC dropped its case amid numerous questions about the credibility of Kazran, who has not been charged.
"We didn't see the OCE report until the board voted on it. We only saw it afterward. Didn't have access to basic information in the report, which was riddled with errors," said an attorney familiar with the case.
The congressman's office disputes the findings of the OCE report, saying it has "full confidence" that the Ethics Committee will "reach the same conclusion" as the FEC and "dismiss these old, recycled accusations." That confidence extends to reports of additional, but as-yet unspecified, investigations by the Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service.
Fitzgerald tells Sunshine State News that he wants to take the "high road" in the campaign and stick to the issues.
"I got in this race because of the direction of the country -- the institutions and the people who run them aren't looking out for them," said the 55-year-old professor. Then, in a quick shot at Buchanan, he adds: "Can we trust this individual to look out for the common good?"
The Sarasotan said the amorphous ethics cloud hangs over the 16th Congressional District race and distracts from policy issues.
"Interest in ethical issues is so intense that it sometimes makes it hard to address my initial remarks at gatherings. There are huge concerns about these issues."
But, he adds, "My campaign has nothing to do with any of that. It read it in the papers like everyone else."
Buchanan, 61, was not available for comment, but his camp isn't buying Fitzgerald's spiel.
"Fitzgerald's smear campaign against Vern is sad and disappointing, and will backfire just like it did against Christine Jennings," said Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts.
"These types of ugly, personal attacks didn't work for Jennings and they won't work now. The Democrats' cynical smear campaign has been used too many times for voters to take it seriously," Tibbetts told Sunshine State News.
Another operative close to the campaign said the DCCC strategy is clear.
"The Democrats have a good publicity machine, and they just keep pushing complaints to other governmental bodies -- throwing mud against the wall."
CREW helps sling it by leading its webpage with daily headlines calling for Buchanan to resign and listing him among "CREW's Most Corrupt."
"Then the media pick up the recycled rubbish. It's a vicious cycle," the source said.
Fitzgerald, who collected $223,000 in contributions during the first three months of his campaign, took an initial fundraising lead over Buchanan. He's also been designated a prime "Red to Blue" candidate from the national Democrats seeking to retake congressional districts.
DCCC and its chairman, Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., "definitely have highlighted Keith as one of their 'top-tier' candidates," a Democratic source said privately.
But Buchanan, an auto dealer and insurance executive with more than $1.1 million in cash on hand, figures to win the money race and blitz the all-important Tampa TV market.
Meantime, the May OCE report released by the House Ethics Committee has been "held over for further review." Significantly, the panel did not form an investigative subcommittee to extend the probe.
During the OCE investigation, Buchanan's attorneys were never allowed to see what staffers did or what was being reviewed.
"If they had disclosed exculpatory information, that would have been a factor in deciding whether to respond," said an attorney close to the case.
"The due-process problems are significant. It was all done under the cover of darkness."
Buchanan's critics ding him for refusing to respond to questions from the panel. But the congressman's attorneys say cooperation goes both ways.
"They didn't share what turned out to be exculpatory and contradictory evidence. It's fair to say they would have gotten a letter from us if we had seen that."
There also was a legal pecking order to consider. The Department of Justice also was looking into the case, and DOJ generally discourages the parties involved from discussing overlapping matters with other agencies.
"We're constructively engaged with DOJ prosecutors," said the attorney, who declined to detail those conversations.
One of the OCE's concerns focused on a $2.9 million settlement made by Buchanan. Buchanan's camp categorically denies -- contrary to the OCE's intimations -- that there was some sort of quid-pro-quo or ulterior motive for the payment.
"It was tied to commercial litigation over auto dealerships and involved the purchase of two Kia dealerships from Ben Kazram," explained another attorney, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hayden Dempsey, an attorney who led Buchanan's ballot battle in 2006, said the daily allegations circling around the congressman "are nothing new."
"I haven't seen anything. It's a rehash," he says.
As for Buchanan's congressional record -- the one that Fitzgerald is attacking -- Dempsey said, "Everyone has been pleasantly surprised how hard he has worked for his constituents. He's reached across the aisle on issues, which has angered some members of his own party.
"He won't have any problem getting re-elected," Dempsey told Sunshine State News from his Tallahassee office.
Joe Gruters, chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party and a longtime top aide to Buchanan, harkens back to the 2010 election, saying, "You can't win by 100,000 votes without this stuff [about Buchanan] being false and incorrect."
"Fitzgerald has a better chance of beating Michael Phelps in the London Olympics than he does beating Vern Buchanan in November."
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.