Boring Like a Fox: A Swing-District Democrat's Desperate Quest for Survival

Patrick Murphy, the House's youngest member, beat Tea Party icon Allen West. His new job is to be as boring as possible.
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Associated Press

Standing on an outdoor stage for the better part of a half an hour has left Rep. Patrick Murphy completely soaked in sweat.

"It's fucking hot out," he says, flapping his arms to dry out his armpits. This may be his only off-script moment this morning. For Murphy, arguably the most vulnerable House incumbent, one tiny misstep, one off-the-cuff remark could make the difference between winning reelection in 2014 and losing his parking space on Capitol Hill. His job these days is to be the most boring member of Congress.

Just take his sound bite from the day's outdoor press event, hosted by No Labels, a bipartisan group of lawmakers and politicos who call themselves "problem solvers." Handed the microphone after dozens of colleagues lamented partisan gridlock and vowed to put policy ahead of partisanship, Murphy began by stating, "I just want to echo what everyone else out here has been saying."

Boring, sure. But boring like a fox. A fox that doesn't want to cause any trouble. Murphy, the 30-year-old freshman who looks like he could play the nice-but-kinda-shy frat boy in a teen movie -- has already proven that sometimes being bland is the most politically savvy way to go. He learned this lesson running against one of the loudest and most visible members of Congress: Tea Party icon Allen West. By toeing a moderate line, and making his Florida congressional election a referendum of the bomb-throwing Republican, Murphy eked out one of the closest races in the country.

Now, he's holding onto just one of nine districts in the country that voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 but elected a Democrat to the House. That means he has to make a lot of swing voters happy -- and that means avoiding provocative statements, straddling the line wherever possible, and, of course, raising tons and tons of cash.

Murphy says that as a moderate, pro-business Democrat, he is a perfect representation of the Treasure Coast of eastern Florida. It's a district that features a swath of wealth from West Palm Beach north to Stuart, populated by country-club Republicans concerned both with the economy and conservation of the coastline that makes the area a tourism hotbed. Before Murphy got to Congress, his resume read like the archetypal constituent: vice president of the family construction business, CPA for Deloitte and Touche. He even spent six months working to help clean up the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

As a point of pride, Murphy mentions that he votes with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi with close to the same frequency as Republican Rep. Tom Rooney, who used to represent much of the same region before redistricting. While that's an overstatement, it is true that Murphy votes with his party 84 percent of the time, putting him near the bottom on the list of party loyalty (185 out of 200, according to Opencongress.org). "If you take any person with my beliefs, and you pulled me out of the race, it turns out those beliefs poll really well in the district, " Murphy says.

This can be read two ways. His supporters, such as former Rep. Tim Mahoney, who used to have the district, say Murphy has a feel for the values of his constituents. "He's doing a great job, which is not surprising, because his principles line up very well with the area," Mahoney says.

Critics, on the other hand, accuse Murphy of being an unprincipled panderer. As Carl Domino, a Florida Republican who has already entered the race puts it, "He talks about balanced budget and wasteful spending, typical things that Republicans are pushing not just in rhetoric but votes. But on the big votes, his agenda is down the Democratic line."

Domino cites Murphy's recent votes to delay mandates in the federal health care law requiring individuals and large companies to have insurance coverage. He was just one of 35 Democrats to vote for giving businesses a one-year reprieve, and one of just 22 Democrats to vote for a delay of the individual mandate. But if this was supposed to give him credibility among Republican voters, Domino says it's a lame attempt.

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Ben Terris is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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