Republicans Aim to Recapture Fetterman’s House Seat
Former state Rep. Gayle Harrell has already bought her trademark red running shoes and plans to begin campaigning this weekend door-to-door in the Martin and St. Lucie County district she earlier represented for eight years.
Harrell, a Stuart Republican, is looking to unseat one-term Democratic Rep. Adam Fetterman of Port St. Lucie in next fall’s elections in what both parties call the premiere match-up among state House contests. Each side plans to pump plenty of campaign cash into backing their candidate.
“With Harrell, incumbency cuts both ways,” said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, in line to succeed House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands following the 2010 elections. “People know her. But if you want change, you’re not going to get that by electing her.”
Harrell, facing legislative term-limits last year, lost in a Republican primary for Congress to U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican from Tequesta. Now, she is looking to make a comeback in the mostly blue-collar district that elected Fetterman last fall.
Fetterman’s victory represented one of only two previously Republican seats captured by the Democrats in 2008, despite President Barack Obama’s solid win in Florida.
“I’m not thinking of this as a Democratic or Republican district,” said Harrell, 65, who recently bought a fresh pair of red running shoes to replace those she wore out in last fall’s election. “The race itself will depend on voters deciding who can best move the Treasure Coast forward. And I think the Treasure Coast deserves better representation than it’s getting today.”
The district, where unemployment tops the state’s 10.7 percent average and foreclosures have taken their toll on what had once been go-go growth, appears a toss-up.
Republicans hold 38 percent of registered voters, to 37 percent among Democrats, with the remaining 25 percent independents or supporting other parties. But Democratic voting strength surged last fall with Obama on the ticket – with the party narrowing what had been a 9,000-vote Republican edge four years earlier to only a 1,200-voter GOP plurality.
Still, even with the rising Democratic numbers, Obama won the district by a relatively modest 2,600 votes – giving him a 50 percent to 49 percent edge over Republican John McCain.
But Fetterman may have an added edge.
Three-quarters of district voters are in his home St. Lucie County, while 25 percent are in Harrell’s home county of Martin. Republicans, though, take solace pointing out that Harrell carried St. Lucie in her Republican primary loss to Rooney last fall, reflecting what they see as lingering strength in the wide-ranging district.
How the Fetterman-Harrell race unfolds also could speak volumes of about whether Democratic prospects of a major rebound in the House are realistic. Democrats trail Republicans 76-44 in the House, but have gained nine seats over the past three years.
Saunders’ hopes are buoyed by 25 seats now held by Republicans where no incumbent is running, mostly because of term-limits. Democrats have only three such openings – leading Saunders to talk of possibly capturing as many as 18 seats next fall. Such success would usher in Saunders as the state’s first Democratic House speaker since Rep. Peter Wallace, D-St. Petersburg, in 1994-96.
For his part, Fetterman’s first session was marked by the kind of success most minority party freshmen achieve. None of his personal lineup of bills passed, ending his attempts to shine a brighter light on property-tax increases linked to school funding, helping law enforcement crack down on drunk drivers, and even allowing counties to have school nurses maintain supplies of epinephrine injectors to combat allergic reactions.
But he had better luck tagging on as a co-sponsor on legislation supported by Republican lawmakers that toughened seat belt requirements, revised pre-paid college refund policies and tightened human smuggling penalties.
“I went into this thinking that if you do a good job, people will reward you for it,” said Fetterman, 38, a lawyer who has been general counsel to the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office. “I don’t think voters necessarily respond to somebody they see as perennially running for office.”
While Democrats and Republicans have put a bulls eye on the Harrell-Fetterman race, they are not likely to be alone.
Harrell has long been supported by the Florida Medical Association -- her husband, Jim, is a retired obstetrician/gynecologist. Harrell said this week she expects to draw similar backing this go-around. That likely means Florida’s influential and free-spending trial attorney organization will weigh in on Fetterman’s side.
Trial attorneys have been prominent this summer, helping finance Jacksonville TV ads paid for by so-called “527” groups trying to defeat former FMA lobbyist and House Speaker John Thrasher’s bid for the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Jim King’s death this summer. The Republican primary is scheduled for Sept. 15.
Harrell acknowledged her race a year from now could draw similar focus.
“I imagine we’ll be hearing from both sides,” Harrell said. “It’ll be a high-profile battle.”