Photo credit: Drew Buchanan/The Pulse
Florida’s conservative panhandle
Florida’s 1st congressional district on the western half of Florida’s panhandle is the most Republican district in Florida, and ties for the 21st in the United States according to the Cook partisan voting index. Among registered voters in the district about half are Republican, about a third are Democrats, and about a sixth have no party affiliation. The district hasn’t supported a Democratic Party presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy in 1960. With the exception of Republican William C. Cramer (in office from 1955 to 1963), the 1st district consistently elected conservative Democrats from the Reconstruction Era until the Republican partisan tide of 1994 when Joe Scarborough was elected. Support for the Democratic Party congressional candidate hasn’t surpassed 30% since then.
Jeff Miller, representing Florida’s 1st district since 2001, recently announced he would not seek reelection, leaving the seat open for 2016. Although the seat is being contested, Miller is expected to be replaced by Republican Matt Gaetz. Gaetz, who has represented the Fort Walton Beach area in the Florida House of Representatives since 2010, won the Republican Party primary on August 30th with 36% support against six other candidates. The runner up, state senator Greg Evers, acquired 22% of the vote. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party candidate, Steven Specht, didn’t face any challengers in the primary.
Contrasting issue positions
Establishment politics – In his campaign advertisements, Gaetz describes himself as a constitutional conservative. Echoing recent statements made by Donald Trump, Gaetz proclaims that “government is rigged against people” and that special interests control both political parties in Congress. On his campaign website, Specht questions the wisdom of Gaetz’s “fighting Washington” campaign theme, suggesting this will result in government shutdowns that hurt active-duty military and veterans. Asked why voters should choose him, the Democratic Party nominee Specht replied that, “I’ll work to build consensus on tough issues” and the opening statement on his campaign website underscores the need to rise above partisan division. Specht also expresses support for bringing term-limits to Congress (a position also taken by Republican Party runner-up Greg Evers).
Firearm policy – Both Gaetz and Specht highlight their NRA memberships on their campaign websites, and express strong support the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, unlike Specht, Gaetz emphasizes support for open-carry and “stand your ground” laws. Specht meanwhile recognizes a need for sensible regulations to reduce gun-related suicides and to keep guns away from criminals and terrorists.
Immigration – In an interview with the Pensacola News Journal, Gaetz emphasized the need to stop illegal immigration and, echoing Donald Trump, a need to “build the wall.” At a debate between Specht and Gaetz at the University of West Florida (UWF) on September 15th, Gaetz added that the wall should be reinforced with drone and lazer technology, and noted that he voted against providing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants in the Florida House of Representatives. Although Specht doesn’t address the issue of immigration on his campaign website, at the UWF debate Specht conceded that “immigration is a problem”, but underscored the need to go after corporations which hire illegal immigrants.
National security – On the topic of national security, Gaetz appears more hawkish, stressing the need to “defeat Muslim terrorism”, a stance which Specht doesn’t take on his campaign website. However, at the UWF debate, Specht recognized a need to “undermine radical Islam”, and argued that energy independence would help the United States achieve this goal. Specht also states on his campaign website that the primary mission of the military is to “track down and kill our enemies” and that the military should only be used for clear security threats, not nation-building.
Veterans affairs – Both candidates express strong support for active-duty military and military veterans. Specht himself is a veteran of the War in Afghanistan, a point he regularly emphasizes in his campaign. While Specht proposes reforming the Department of Veterans Administration, Gaetz calls for privatizing the department.
The Economy – Both candidates express support for free market solutions to the economy. However, Gaetz opposes cutting spending on national security if it would damage the economy of Northwest Florida, a region in which a large percentage of the workforce are in the military or the defense sector. Specht expresses support for free market solutions to global warming. Gaetz doesn’t address the issue of global warming on his campaign website, and at the UWF debate, argued that the United States cannot be energy independent without some fossil fuel usage. Specht also supports a more proactive role for the government in helping military veterans transition back into the work force, and opposes privatizing Social Security. Both candidates favor legalizing medical marijuana, which may happen in November if Amendment 2 is approved by Florida voters.
Education – At the UWF debate, Specht argued that federal education loans could be allocated more effectively by paying closer attention to the job opportunities waiting for students after they graduate. Gaetz meanwhile took a more radical stance on education, stating that his goal would be to decentralize control over education policy, for instance, by abolishing the federal Department of Education. In response, Specht pointed out that it would be impossible for a freshman Congressman to abolish a well-established agency such as the Department of Education. In response, Gaetz replied that “sometimes you need to charge the hill, win or lose” to make the county great.
Prospects for a Specht victory
On the campaign trail, Specht is aiming to portray himself as a moderate Democrat who can potentially turn Florida’s 1st congressional district blue, given the open-seat election, as well as his potential appeal to veterans, moderate Republicans and independents in the district. However, recent election outcomes in the district suggest that independents and moderate Republicans tend to support the Republican rather than the Democratic Party candidate. Gaetz has other advantages as well, such as legislative experience, media advantages (e.g., his own YouTube channel), and endorsements from prominent Republicans such as Arkansas Governor Mike Hukabee. Also, Gaetz has raised over $933,000 in 2016, while Specht has raised just over $20,000, according to votesmart.org.
As it stands, there isn’t much chance of a spoiler effect, since there is no independent or third party candidate on the ballot for the 1st district race. Even if there was, recent elections suggest it wouldn’t have a significant impact on the outcome. There was a Libertarian candidate on ballot in 2012, but he only garnered about 3% of the vote, and Jeff Miller still won with a supermajority. Similarly, the independent candidate on the ballot in 2014 acquired 6.5% but still wasn’t a factor.
Nationally unpopular presidential candidates can cost their party large blocs of legislative seats. However, rather than distancing himself from Trump, Gaetz appears to have adopted some of Trump’s policy stances and campaign tactics, and even endorsed Trump while announcing his intention to run for Congress. This strategy seems to have helped Gaetz win the Republican Party primary. According to Colorado University political scientist Seth Masket, “if Clinton beat Trump by 8 to 10 percentage points this year, that would translate, on average, to just a handful of House seats changing hands”. Even so, those seats that did change hands would be competitive, not safe seats like Florida’s 1st congressional district.
When William C. Cramer won Florida’s 1st congressional district in 1955, the parties were much less polarized, and congressional district races more competitive. However, as party realignment progressed, the political landscape in the United States became increasingly polarized. The popularity of the anti-establishment stances of the Trump and Sanders primary campaigns suggest some potential for non-partisan coalition building in 2016, but it doesn’t appear strong enough to create an upset in Florida’s 1st congressional district.