In 2008, freshman Democrat Alan Grayson self-financed his race and won Florida's independent-leaning eighth district. Set along the famed I-4 corridor in Florida, this district has a history of deciding statewide elections because its voters have been fed up with George W. Bush, the Iraq War, and with scandals, both personal and political, surrounding the GOP. In 2008, they also turned out to vote for Obama and helped him carry the state.
When Grayson ran, he was anti-Bush and anti-war (he had a bumper sticker on his car that read, "Bush Lied, People Died"). And incumbent Ric Keller represented all that voters did not like about Republicans, especially the fact that he left his wife to marry a younger woman.
Though the political climate has changed drastically in two years, Grayson continues to stick by his principles and is to conservatives what Michele Bachmann is to liberals. He's called Dick Cheney a "vampire" and told him to "STFU." He said the GOP's health care plan, if they even have one, would be for sick people to "die quickly." He's endeared himself to liberals and to MSNBC hosts and viewers and has fiercely backed President Obama's agenda.
His beliefs are genuine. He's not a phony. He's pugnacious. At least that is what his supporters say they like about him, and that is why he's the type of candidate that some liberal activists, particularly those from the Netroots, wish there were more of. If Grayson gets re-elected in this climate, more of such candidates may push Democrats further to the left.
But the question for Grayson in this election cycle, which is full of anti-incumbent voters who are souring on Democrats, will be if he is way too far to the left of the voters who come out in midterm elections.
Fortunately for Grayson, perhaps, is that his GOP opponent Daniel Webster may be too far to the right of voters in this district. In a way, these two candidates represent the extreme choices whom voters across the nation, particularly independents, feel they have to choose between -- in essence, picking the lesser of two evils. Reflexively socially conservative, Webster led the fight for the state to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case, which turned off many voters in this district.
In order to win, Grayson has to first show that Webster is unacceptable to voters, and he has wasted no time going on the attack. But he may have overreached. Grayson came out swinging, writing to supporters that "Taliban Dan wants to institute the same rule here" that the Taliban government has instituted in Northwest Pakistan; that "the man with the 19th century name wants to pass 13th century laws, which you and I will have to live by." Grayson wrote that Webster's support for covenant marriage essentially "reduces the institution of marriage to a roach motel. You can check in, but you can't check out."
In perhaps a sign that he may be trailing in the race, Grayson one-upped even these letters with blistering attack ads that were grossly misleading at best and lies at worst. He hurled accusations, in one ad, that Webster was a draft-dodger. In another, he brought back the "Taliban Dan" comparison with more ferocity.
For the time being, these ads seem like they may have been a miscalculation, since they fit nicely with Webster's narrative of Grayson as an inflammatory lunatic who is far to the left of his district. Webster can also now play victim to Grayson's smear tactics while benefiting from a raised profile, more enthused supporters, and coffers filled with donations from conservatives across the country.
Two other things to look for in this race: conservative senior citizens groups have poured a million dollars into this race attacking Grayson (a blow that may be softened by the fact that Grayson has spent his career studying issues that concern seniors). Also, Tea Party-associated candidate Pen Dunmire may siphon votes from Webster.
Bottom line: Faced with a far left and a far right candidate, who will Florida's famed independent I-4 corridor voters choose? And if Grayson pulls off this victory, will we see more flame-throwing liberals crowd out more moderate Democrats in the future?