Florida Republicans have had a lot of problems lately.
But gathered inside a tiny art gallery near Winter Park on Wednesday night was an example of something they got right.
It was an assembly of five conservatives who have stepped up to take on Democrat U.S. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas.
And collectively, they constitute the strongest pack of contenders in quite some time — which is just what this party needs in this high-profile race.
Their candidates' backgrounds are as diverse as their demographics. There's a city commissioner, a state legislator, a former CEO, a general contractor and the profession that seems to be mandatory whenever two or more politicians gather: a lawyer. The group includes two women, one black man and a mix of establishment players and rabble-rousers.
In other words, Republicans will have real choice.
Republicans want this seat back. Badly. They feel as though it was designed for them because, well, it was.
Back when Tom Feeney was speaker of the Florida House, he wanted to run for Congress. So his legislative peers were kind enough to draw him a new district — right around his house.
Like most every other gerrymandered district this state, the 24th bobs and weaves through various cities and counties — from Daytona Beach, through Seminole County and then way out through Orange County, toward Lake.
The district is so narrow in one stretch that its primary residents are the egrets and gators in Lake Osceola — the result of legislators trying to take the narrowest possible path to get Feeney some of the Republican-rich turf way out near Mount Dora. (Side note: Vote yes on Amendments 5 and 6, the fair-districting acts.)
But the GOP-heavy district evened out though the years. And now it is in play.
National handicappers, like the Rothenberg and Cook political reports, give Kosmas the edge. And that's probably fair.
She has the fundraising advantage afforded to most all incumbents. And though the talking-point crowd on the right tries to describe Kosmas the way they do most any Democrat — a socialist, communist radical somewhere to the left of Castro — she's actually a moderate. In fact, the people Kosmas has most ticked off are liberals who were furious at her opposition to the president's health-care plan.
For better or worse, Kosmas has basically emerged as what she promised voters back when she ousted Feeney — a moderate, pro-business Dem.
Still, Kosmas has given the Republican Party the red meat it craves by supporting the stimulus package and cap-and-trade bill.
And her Republican challengers pounced on such votes at a forum Wednesday night sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition of Florida.
The candidates present: State Rep. Sandy Adams, Winter Park City Commissioner Karen Diebel, general contractor Ed Dedelow, attorney Deon Long and former Ruth's Chris Steak House CEO Craig Miller. A formidable field.
Sure, there are warts — the size and offensiveness of each will be studied and exposed throughout the campaign. But overall, it's a strong crop of candidates that emerged from the ground up despite the frantic and unsophisticated meddling by the National Republican Congressional Committee. The committee was so desperate to try to hand-pick a candidate from D.C. that it was trying to recruit ESPN football commentator Lou Holtz.
The group that emerged should be fun to watch.
If there's a universal flaw in the campaigns on both sides of the aisle in this race, it is the railing against supposed pork projects while clamoring to get a piece of the pig.
Specifically, I'm talking about NASA.
Virtually all of these candidates profess their love for NASA funding. But, for the most part, they don't argue that such spending is wise for our country as a whole. Instead, they tout the part that they think will give them votes — local jobs.
In Iowa, it's farm subsidies.
In Virginia, it's defense contractors.
And in Florida, it's spending on the Space Coast.
One politician's pork is another's crucial job-creation plan. Spending continues to rise with everyone pointing at everyone else as the reason.
A more intellectually honest reason to support NASA spending would be to tout the mission and the purpose.
Still, that part of the campaign probably won't change, no matter which party's politicking. So, for now, it's exciting to watch a real race with real choices.
Scott Maxwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6141.