One of the nation's few supposedly competitive congressional elections is looking uncompetitive.
District 18 includes roughly the northern third of Palm Beach County, all of Martin and most of St. Lucie. Republicans hold about a two-percentage point edge in registration, but nearly 30 percent of voters are independents.
Allen West so coveted District 18 that he moved from the Broward-Palm Beach district he had represented for just one term. The man who called himself an "American ronin," after the Japanese warrior, ducked a fight with Lois Frankel, a political samurai of sorts herself. West's presence caused Tom Rooney, the rock-solid Republican who had represented the area, to bolt for the new District 17 that runs from Okeechobee to Tampa.
But West proved too right-wing for a key voting bloc. After he and Democrat Patrick Murphy spent nearly $23 million, Murphy won by about 2,000 votes. The margin came in heavily-Republican Martin County, where West got 5,000 fewer votes than Mitt Romney. Martin Republicans tend to be pro-environment moderates, not those who swooned over the Allen West video in which he implored tea party followers to "fix bayonets."
Still, Murphy can't assume he will get lucky with his opponent each time. Turnout also drops by about one-third in non-presidential election years, and those who vote tend to be angry. With President Obama's approval rating in the low 40s, with a group that even Al-Qaeda rejected making gains in Iraq, with Americans still anxious about the economy, swing voters probably will direct more of their anger at Democrats.
So Republicans want to nationalize the election, whatever the race is. Gov. Scott will do everything but call his opponent Charlie Hussein Crist. Murphy's Republican opponent will drape "Obamacare" around his neck; Murphy wasn't in Congress to vote for it, but he supports changes to the Affordable Care Act, not repeal.
Murphy and other Democrats will respond by trying to localize the election. For weeks, Murphy has emphasized his support for federal money to clean up and restore the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. Last fall, discharges from polluted Lake Okeechobee and local fertilizer-laden runoff turned the St. Lucie toxic. Brown plumes formed in the Atlantic Ocean, and then drifted south. This week, Murphy touted his support for "water farming" — paying farmers to store water on their land, where it can clean itself naturally.
Then there's the gift of All Aboard Florida, and the company's inept rollout of the proposed passenger train service between Miami and Orlando. Opposition to All Aboard Florida is strongest in District 18, where residents, rightly or wrongly, see themselves getting all of the hassles and none of the benefits.
Murphy can't block All Aboard Florida, even if it depends on a $1.5 billion federal grant. On his campaign website, though, All Aboard Florida is Murphy's top issue. Happily for Murphy, most of his potential opponents also are competing to see who can oppose the project most strenuously.
About those Republican hopefuls. Murphy may be in a competitive district, but he likely won't have a competitive opponent. As of June 30, Murphy had raised $3.5 million. The six Republicans in the Aug. 26 primary had raised about $300,000 combined and had loaned themselves collectively about $700,000.
They do rail against Washington and the Democrats. One candidate blasts "galactically irresponsible" decisions on spending and teases rabid Republicans with a clearly doctored photograph of Obama and Carl Domino, the primary's presumed front-runner. Another candidate bemoans the budget deficit but opposes any cuts to Medicare, the main driver of future deficits.
As for Domino , he served in the Florida House from 2002 until 2010. He has raised the most — $180,000 — and has the most name recognition. His ads link Murphy with House Minority Leader/Republican piñata Nancy Pelosi and "Obamacare." But Domino has loaned himself $425,000, and couldn't even win back his old state House seat in 2012. Finally, why would a 70-year-old man who is worth about $25 million and has teenaged kids want to serve in the dysfunctional Republican House?
A truly competitive election would pit two credible, moderate candidates. Murphy is that credible, moderate Democrat. A credible, moderate Republican? Not yet.
Randy Schultz is the former editor of the editorial page of The Palm Beach Post. He also blogs for Boca Raton Magazine.