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.
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."
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.
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.
When Hobe Sound poll worker William Harrington was asked about the Foley-Negron-ballot issue, he said, "I can't answer any question about that. We're under tight restrictions."
He added: "We received on Monday morning a sheet saying we could give no assistance as to candidates and we were warned that there might be people like you testing what we do."
One voter, Anita Hunt, said she overheard a man complaining loudly to officials manning the Hobe Sound precinct. "He was saying all kinds of four-letter words and 'I don't understand this,' " Ms. Hunt said. She said she heard the poll worker suggest that the man should ask his wife for help with his question. She said she heard the poll worker tell the man, "I can't advise you."
Despite the incident, voters emerging from the polls at Hobe Sound said they had no problem voting for the candidate of their choice – including many who said they voted for Negron.
"It is not confusing at all," said Jean Aldridge, after casting her ballot for Negron. "Anyone listening to the news or reading the paper should know."
Kevin Conway said he wasn't confused by the ballot. "I wouldn't vote for either Foley or Negron," he says. But he added that he saw no reason why new ballots couldn't be printed "for the dumb Republicans who want to vote for Negron."
Some voters interviewed after casting their ballots said they were disappointed with Foley, but that they wouldn't hold the scandal against the Republican Party or Negron. Others aren't so willing to forgive.
Marilyn Budensiek, a Negron campaign volunteer, says she's seen angry voters. "I do think Mark Foley has hurt the Republican cause," she says. "That may be more of a burden than Joe Negron not being on the ballot."
Robert Page, a self-described independent voter, said the scandal "swayed me all the way" to vote Democratic. "It is like a decaying process from the top down," he said of Republican elected officials.
Three House seats were left open by lawmakers now under investigation. Democrats are taking advantage.
• Ohio, 18th District: Democrat Zack Space is ahead in the polls to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Bob Ney (R), who pleaded guilty this month to taking favors in return for official actions on behalf of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients. Mr. Ney's hand-picked candidate is state Sen. Joy Padgett.
•Texas, 22nd District: The seat held by former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) is expected to shift to Democratic control. Mr. DeLay resigned from Congress in June amid money-laundering charges in Texas, and Republicans, barred by law from substituting a name on the ballot, must pin their hopes on a write-in campaign. The Democrats' Nick Lampson, a former congressman, is running strong.
•Arizona, Eighth District: Rep. Jim Kolbe (R), who recently came under scrutiny for taking a 1996 camping trip with congressional pages, is retiring. Democrat Gabrielle Giffords leads Republican Randy Graf.
Some House incumbents under investigation are running for reelection. They deny wrongdoing.
•California, Fourth District: Rep. John Doolittle (R) accepted campaign money from Mr. Abramoff and used the lobbyist's luxury sports box for a fundraiser without initially reporting it. Mr. Doolittle faces little-known Democrat Charlie Brown in a strongly Republican district and appears poised for victory.
•California, 41st District: Rep. Jerry Lewis (R) accepted $60,000 from San Diego defense contractor Brent Wilkes, who hired a lobbying firm to push the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman for federally funded projects. An investigation by federal prosecutors became public weeks before the primary, too late for Mr. Lewis to attract strong opposition.
•Louisiana, Second District: Rep. William Jefferson (D) was the target of an FBI raid in May at his Capitol Hill office as part of an investigation into whether he took a $100,000 bribe in 2005 – all but $10,000 of which was alleged to be found in the freezer of his Washington home. Jefferson faces a long list of challengers, and the state Democratic Party has endorsed his closest competitor, Karen Carter.
•Pennsylvania, Seventh District: The political future of Rep. Curt Weldon (R) is in doubt amid allegations he used his influence to help his daughter's lobbying firm secure contracts worth $1 million from foreign clients. The FBI raided his daughter's home and office this month in what Mr. Weldon termed a politically motivated inquiry. Weldon faces Democrat Joe Sestak.
•West Virginia, First District: Rep. Alan Mollohan (D) faces a stiff challenge from Republican Chris Wakim, who has support from the national Republican Party and big names such as first lady Laura Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr. Mollohan is the subject of an investigation into federal money given to nonprofit groups that contributed to his campaigns.
– Associated Press