The Magazine

Is Foley's Seat Really Lost?

His name is still on the ballot, yet a Republican might still win.

Oct 16, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 05 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
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Port St. Lucie, Florida

"This district does not want a John Kerry Democrat representing them in Congress," says Florida state legislator Joe Negron. We are standing outside the St. Lucie County GOP headquarters, and Negron, as usual, is in a hurry. After our chat he will dash off to sign the Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) no-new-taxes pledge. "I have a strong affiliation with ATR," says Negron, of the group run by Grover Norquist. During our conversation Negron repeatedly boasts that he is a "fiscal conservative."

The good news for Negron, 45, is that he is running for Congress in a heavily Republican district, Florida's 16th, which George W. Bush carried by 8 points in 2004, and where, according to a recent poll, likely GOP voters outnumber likely Democrats 47 percent to 32 percent. The bad news is that he has only five weeks to cobble together a campaign before November 7. He is taking the place of former Republican congressman Mark Foley, who resigned in disgrace, and under Florida election law, Foley's name must remain on the ballot. So Negron now has the unenviable task of convincing voters to pull the lever for "Mark Foley"--understanding that by doing so they'll actually be voting for Joe Negron.

He puts a brave face on all this: "I'd rather be in my position than in Tim Mahoney's position." Mahoney is his Democratic opponent, a self-made millionaire and political novice who until a few days ago had pretty dim prospects. After Foley's resignation he surged ahead. Negron is eager to paint Mahoney as a "liberal" Democrat in the mold of Senator Kerry, who has joined Mahoney in Florida to show his support. But that may be a harder sell than Negron thinks.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Mahoney dubbed himself a "conservative Christian," cited Ronald Reagan as a political hero, opposed stricter gun control laws, and came out against the estate tax on family farms. His talk about restoring "integrity" to the office he seeks may strike a chord with angry Republicans and right-leaning independents. He also sounds hawkish on port security. And, of course, the 50-year-old investment banker will have plenty of money on hand: his own wealth plus the donations that have apparently been pouring in since Foley stepped down.

Negron once had his own fat campaign chest--but that was during an aborted run to be Florida's attorney general. He dropped out of the 2006 race to make way for former GOP congressman Bill McCollum, the eventual nominee, who Negron believed had superior name recognition and more experience. According to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Negron had raised over $1 million for that race, of which only $600,000 or so is available for his embryonic House campaign. "It's not yet money in the bank," reports the Sun-Sentinel. "Federal law requires funds raised for state races to be sent back to donors, who then decide whether to contribute to the federal race."

But Negron will enjoy robust support from the national GOP and from Florida Republicans, who quickly rallied around his candidacy after initial jostling over Foley's replacement. Governor Jeb Bush will campaign for Negron this week. (Negron once made headlines by endorsing Gov. Bush's role in the Terri Schiavo case. "The government should not stand by and allow a citizen to die of thirst," he told me last week.) "At first everyone thought it was gone," says a Florida GOP official of the Foley seat. "Now I think everybody's a lot more optimistic about things."

The irony is that Negron was once a Democrat and Mahoney a Republican. The Los Angeles Times reports that Mahoney switched parties just last year; Negron says he became a Republican in 1991. "I was very upset that the Republican party was on the wrong side of the civil rights movement," he told me. But when he graduated from Emory Law School in 1986 and returned home to Florida's so-called Treasure Coast, Negron says he was put off by the liberalism and Reagan-bashing of many fellow Democrats. He made his first bid for the Florida House of Representatives as a Democrat; his next two as a Republican. All three failed.

Negron finally won election to the Florida House in 2000, as a representative from the affluent Martin County town of Stuart. Florida's bizarrely shaped 16th District encompasses most of Martin County, one of Florida's more GOP-friendly areas, plus part or all of seven other counties. "According to state records reaching back to 1978," the Palm Beach Post reported last February, "just one Democrat has beat a Republican for a state House seat that included any part of Martin County."