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.

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 "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.

"It just doesn't make sense logically," Domino said. "If you're an ardent supporter of the law, if you think it's helpful, as Murphy does, then why do you vote to delay it? He's trying to have it both ways. But what really matters is, he thinks the Affordable Care Act is overall helpful, and I don't."

Katie Prill of the National Republican Congressional Committee says that by not voting against repeal earlier this year, Murphy made it very clear his so-called "conservative values" were a mirage.

"People in his district don't want this law, and the American people not happy with it," she said. "Instead of standing up for the people in his district, he did the opposite and voted against repeal…. He may want to appear bipartisan, but it's clear where he really stands."

All of it leaves Murphy in sort of a vaporous state, as if turning solid will undoubtedly offend one bloc or another. When asked what legislation, specifically, he'd be willing to lose his seat for, Murphy gave a terrific nonanswer between bites of falafel in a House office building cafeteria.

"Any issue that I think is best for our country or our future, I'll take the vote and not think twice about it," he said. (That isn't to say he isn't without core values. He's pro-abortion rights, pro-LGBT rights, pro-pathway to citizenship.)

Things are so difficult nowadays for a congressman trying to find middle ground that a simple meeting with the House Speaker John Boehner quickly escalated into an Internet rumor that Murphy was offering to change parties -- a rumor that was swiftly debunked on all sides.

"It was the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard said about me," says Murphy. (It wasn't all that ridiculous. Murphy was a registered Republican as recently as 2011 -- and, anyway, it wouldn't be the first time a Southern Democrat has made the jump.) "I met with him, sure. To me, if I got new a job at a company, I'd want to meet my boss. It really says something about the state of our politics that a meeting like that could start a rumor."

Murphy's dilemma is, he can't protest too, too much, lest he be tagged as overly liberal. But he does benefit from his status in another way: As a freshman, he isn't in the thick of major debates in the House over spending and immigration.

Murphy says his impetus to run for Congress came after watching Allen West on TV and feeling compelled to dislodge him from office. But holding onto the seat might be an even bigger accomplishment, because midterm demographics might make it harder for him to win in 2014 than in 2012. Murphy has proven he can raise a great deal of money, but he certainly isn't a fundraising juggernaut like West, who pulled in a staggering $19 million for his 2012 campaign. The general consensus is that Murphy is going to need to raise more than $3 million this time around. Fortunately for him, he's well on track, having raised more than $1 million already this year, most of it coming from outside the district.

As with everything else, Murphy needs to raise a lot of money, while also making it look like he hates doing it. If he shows any kind of pleasure in fundraising, that opens the door to calls of hypocrisy from Republicans, who love to note that he once was against super PACS, calling them "gross," and has since praised their help as "making a big difference" in his campaign.

"I think its terrible the amount of time spent fundraising," Murphy says. "It doesn't do justice for the American people …. The time spent is always a distraction."

Perhaps that's why one of his dozens of requests for contributions this year began with him sounding more apologetic than anything: "This is the last time I will bug you this weekend. Promise."