In this year of the angry, anti-government voter, Republicans in Florida House District 80 have three flavors of conservatism from which to choose.
A lively Republican primary race in the east-central district features incumbent Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, former state Rep. Art Argenio and first-time candidate Bradley Ward.
All three profess to be conservatives, as befitting the heavily GOP district that encompasses portions of Indian River and St. Lucie counties. Variously, the candidates are jockeying to be the most fiscally responsible, most aggressively pro-business and even the most pious in the field.
There are defining differences, too.
Mayfield, who succeeded her late husband, Stan, in 2008, has reliably toed the House party line. Voting consistently with the GOP majority while not rocking the boat with any personal agendas, she blends nicely into Tallahassee's GOP Zeitgeist.
From government reorganization initiatives to the ultrasound abortion bill, Mayfield supported mainstream Republicanism as practiced in Tallahassee. She also backed jobs legislation while "holding the line on taxes."
Philosophically, she holds that "government is not the answer."
But her signature bill -- putting Vero Beach's pricey utility operation under the purview of the state Public Service Commission -- failed to get to the floor.
"I will bring it up again next year," Mayfield says, encouraged that she will gain the support of more colleagues in return for her votes this past session.
Mayfield worked with state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, to pass a children's services bill that once looked doomed. She also collaborated with Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-The Villages, to begin assessing modest health-insurance premiums on previously exempt state employees.
"It's a good first step," she says.
Mayfield's opponents say voters deserve more.
Argenio is considered a Tea Party favorite through his affiliation with the Treasure Coast Tea Party. Warning of the dangers of a dictatorial government, he relates how his wife fled South Africa's "socialist" regime.
Argenio openly professes his Christian faith, making replete religious references at a recent fund-raising event near his home on Hutchinson Island. "We are one nation under God," he says.
Invoking President Ronald Reagan's name, as well, Argenio hammers at government overspending. He notes that the 2010 state budget, engineered by Republicans, was even larger than the one proposed by Gov. Charlie Crist.
Characterizing the District 80 race, Argenio says, "It's the constitutional conservative against the political establishment."
Argenio blasts Mayfield for supporting red-light cameras, raiding trust funds in a budgetary sleight-of-hand and voting for the multimillion-dollar SunRail "Train to Nowhere."
"Mayfield voted to increase the size of government. I want government to be small, taxes low and markets free," says Argenio, a chiropractor and health-club owner. As such, he has called for deregulation of Florida's electric utility markets.
Bradley Ward (no relation to the author of this story) says he's best qualified to bring business sense to Tallahassee.
With a varied background that began on a dairy farm and moved into home building and sales, Ward now owns Orchid Wealth Management in Vero Beach. He says he can use his business acumen to generate jobs.
Ward assails the Legislature -- and, implicitly, Mayfield -- for spending $200 million for job retraining programs "for jobs that don't exist."
Ward also calls Argenio's Tea Party spiel shallow.
"Just cutting taxes is not enough to lure business. When you're No. 6 in business tax environment now, how much further do you want to go?" he asks.
Instead, Ward proposes to pull regional interests together to coordinate commercial expansion along the Treasure Coast.
"You have to work at a multi-county level, dealing with supply chains and support," he says.
Ward's website casts Mayfield's connections in a negative light, noting that she landed a $122,000 annual contract to perform "sponsorship marketing" for the Florida High School Athletic Association.
Mayfield, a mortgage broker, has known FHSAA director Roger Dearing since his days as superintendent of the Indian River County School District. Mayfield's late husband was on the School Board when Dearing was hired in 1993.
Ward also suggests that Argenio is an inveterate political opportunist who hops in and out of races. After winning a special House election in Hobe Sound in 1999, Argenio was ousted by Negron the following year.
As the District 80 primary contest heads toward a climax on Aug. 24, Argenio calls it "the most significant legislative race in 2010."
And as charges and counter-charges take on a sharper edge -- in eastern central Florida, anyway -- the big Republican tent could be splitting at the seams.
Reach Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.