Democrats hoping to stem the tide of a potential Republican rout in November are eyeing a solidly GOP seat in Southwest Florida and may be aided by a tea party candidate who has rarely stepped foot in the district.
House District 73, a seat Republicans have held since term 1998, appears up for grabs as a moderate and well-funded Democratic candidate faces off against the Republican standard-bearer who also faces the potential of losing conservative votes to a Florida tea party candidate.
Democrat Cole Peacock, 36, says he’s confident he can win the district on his own against Republican Matt Caldwell, 29. But he’s also not bemoaning what he said could be a 5 to 6 percent vote for tea party candidate Raul Ismael Pantolja Rodrieguez, 26, an Orlando area Internet radio commentator who jumped into the race in June and has received most of his $2,100 in campaign money from the tea party.
Caldwell, in turn, dismisses the affect Rodriguez will have on the race, saying the district has long been a fiscally conservative region, an existing attitude that has been satisfactorily addressed by Republican office holders.
“The tea party is not as heavy a movement in this area,” Caldwell said. “People here, on balance, are already pretty fiscally conservative. The (tea) party message doesn’t resonate as much here as say in a Tampa or Orlando.”
The last Democrat to hold the seat was Keith Arnold, who left the seat in 1998. Arnold was replaced by Republican Bruce Kyle, who in turn was succeeded by Rep. Nick Thompson, who chose to forgo reelection to become a circuit court judge.
“It’s definitely in play,” said Arnold, who held the seat for 16 years.
Both candidates have had money to spend. Caldwell’s campaign includes $72,241 in cash and $30,000 in in-kind contributions. Peacock’s campaign is fueled with $67,730 in cash and $41,635 in in-kind contributions.
Rodriguez has raised and spent little, but Democrats say the mere fact that the word “TEA” appears on the ballot may cost Caldwell votes.
“As best we can see is pulling 5-6 points from the Republican,” Peacock said. “It could be higher than that. There are a lot of people who identify with the tea party over here.”
In the past several weeks, both candidates have been out knocking on doors as they continue to forge ahead with their respective campaigns. Both candidates have hammered away at the poor economy and the need to create jobs.
Peacock is expected to get a visit next week by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the state’s highest-ranking Democrat, a popular incumbent who has been touring the state this week for other Democratic candidates. State Democratic officials are trying to mute an expected mid-term pushback by Republicans and others frustrated over the economy and programs championed by President Barack Obama.
In Lee County, however, Democrats say Peacock’s business background may mute some of those concerns as he attracts moderates from both sides of the political aisle.
“The big challenge in the race is there is a bit of an anti-Democratic wave out there,” said Will Prather, chairman of the Lee County Democratic Party. “I’m beginning to think that some of that has been amped up.”
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