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GOP slips at Foley scandal's epicenter

Florida's red-tinted 16th District may swing blue after US Rep. Mark Foley resignation.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 2006



HOBE SOUND, FLA.

Florida's 16th Congressional District is a classic political gerrymander drawn to favor Republican candidates over Democrats. Shaped like a squashed plumber's wrench, it meanders across eight counties to link Republican strongholds on Florida's east and west coasts.

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But even the fanciest handiwork of Republican line-drawers in Tallahassee may be of little comfort to Joe Negron this election season. He is the former state representative from Stuart tapped by the Republican Party to run for the seat left vacant by disgraced US Rep. Mark Foley amid the Congressional page scandal.

Mr. Foley's former seat is one of the four most vulnerable Republican congressional seats in the Nov. 7 election, says the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. It is considered a key contest in a national push by Democrats to gain 15 or more seats to take control of the House of Representatives and elevate Nancy Pelosi to House speaker.

Although Florida's 16th Congressional District is designed to produce Republican winners, analysts say this year may be different.

"It is going to be a very tough go for Negron to win," says Del Ali of the independent polling firm Research 2000.

Two weeks ago, a poll by Mr. Ali showed Mr. Negron trailing Democratic candidate Tim Mahoney by 7 percentage points. The pollster says Democrats are more fired up than Republicans, and that independent voters in the district – a critical voting bloc – favor Mr. Mahoney by 30 points.

"If Negron becomes competitive with independents, that is how he would pull it out," Ali says. "He has got to take it to within five or six points."

Democrat hits hurricane insurance

Mahoney, who runs a financial- services company, is critical of the local economy and skyrocketing hurricane insurance rates in campaign appearances and ads. He is also pushing the need for change in Washington.

Negron is hoping to capitalize on campaign stops by Gov. Jeb Bush, who is said to enjoy a 60-plus percent approval rating among district voters.

Both candidates can stake legitimate claims to the political center. Mahoney is a former Republican, while Negron is a former Democrat.

But Negron faces a particularly difficult obstacle – he must find a way to win an election without his name appearing on the ballot.

Because Mr. Foley resigned so late, Republicans were barred from changing the ballot. Election law in Florida establishes a strict deadline for ballot changes. If a candidate withdraws after the deadline, the original candidate's name remains on the ballot, though a replacement candidate receives any votes cast for the original candidate.

A similar situation arose in 2004 when the Democratic challenger in a race in nearby Palm Beach and Broward counties suddenly pulled out for health reasons. Although the new candidate's name did not appear on the ballot, signs were posted in each precinct to help clarify the situation.

Following Foley's departure from the current campaign, elections officials were discussing the possibility of posting similar precinct signs. The proposed signs were designed to explain that a vote for Foley would be counted as a vote for Negron. The signs also explained that a vote for the Democratic candidate, Mahoney, would be counted as a vote for Mahoney. The balanced wording on the posted signs was intended to avoid granting an unfair advantage to any one candidate, while at the same time preventing voter confusion.

The state Democratic Party sued to block not only precinct signs but any verbal communication between poll workers and voters concerning Foley's name on the ballot or Negron's candidacy. Last week, a state judge granted the Democratic Party's request for an injunction. Circuit Judge Janet Ferris barred election officials in the 16th District from posting special signs or verbally explaining why Negron's name was not on the ballot and why Foley's name was still on.

Poll workers can't help voters

The ruling marks the first time a judge has ever interpreted Florida election law so broadly to bar any mention of a candidate in response to a voter's question. State officials are appealing Judge Ferris's ruling. Some poll workers are referring to Judge Ferris's ruling as a preelection "gag order."

Early voting began this week. Negron campaign workers are positioned outside the polls to stress to voters that a vote for Foley is really a vote for Negron.

David Levine, a Republican committee member in Martin County, has been manning the parking lot outside the polls at the Hobe Sound Library. "There is a very high rate of awareness" of the ballot issue, he says. "There was only one person I had to explain the whole situation to. Everyone else knows it."

Political analysts say that early voters tend to be more politically aware. The real test will be on Election Day when independent undecided voters arrive at the polls, analysts say.

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