For a while, Florida Democrats' plan to defend Rep. Patrick Murphy's House seat appeared to be proceeding smoothly, with the path seemingly opening for the party's chosen candidate in what is likely to be among 2016's most competitive and expensive House races.
Following Murphy's decision to leave his seat to run for Senate, several prominent Democrats met to whittle down the field of candidates. Together, they settled on Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay as the party's best bet.
But before McKinlay could announce her candidacy, one of her fellow county commissioners jumped the gun. Priscilla Taylor, who wasn't one of the possible candidates in on the discussions, announced she was running for Murphy's seat, leaving other Democrats wondering why she hadn't talked to anyone about running.
Taylor's response: It's a democracy, and she can do what she wants.
"I'm, quite frankly, an experienced politician," Taylor told National Journal. "I've owned my own business. I'm not to the point where I feel I have to go to anyone to ask them permission for anything."
As to whether she spoke to anyone about running for Congress before she announced her candidacy, Taylor said she spoke to Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Democrat who represents an adjacent district. She also called Murphy's office and played phone tag, but did not speak to him before announcing her bid, she said. An official with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee confirmed Taylor did not reach out to the committee.
"I called Alcee Hastings and called a few of the others," Taylor said. "But I don't know who the influential Democrats around here are, you know? So yeah, I don't know who they are."
McKinlay and other Democrats responded with surprise, especially considering Taylor wasn't exactly enemies with McKinlay or any of her allies before entering the race. State Sen. Joe Abruzzo, one of the Democrats who backed McKinlay, described Taylor as "extraordinarily bright and sharp." She also has significantly more experience on the county commission—she was elected in 2010 after serving in the state House—than McKinlay, who was just elected to the board in November.
When asked to explain what happened, state Sen. Jeff Clemens, another Democrat who backed McKinlay and now works as a consultant for her campaign, responded, "I can't. I'm not sure what happened." He added that Taylor is "good people" and that he hopes the primary will be more about the issues than the candidates' personal differences.
Taylor and McKinlay both said the campaign won't affect their work on the commission, saying it's nothing personal. But the prospect of two county commissioners competing for the same seat isn't the same as two members of the state House or Senate: The commission has only seven members, meaning the two work closely together. And it's not often that candidates from the same county commission run against each other. In 2012, for example, Ventura County, California Supervisor Steve Bennett, a Democrat, dropped his congressional bid, making way for fellow county Supervisor Linda Parks, an independent, in the state's 26th District, now represented by Democrat Julia Brownley.
For now, the race hasn't appeared to cause friction on the commission.
"I have a cordial relationship with her on the commission, and that's as far as it extends," McKinlay said.
Taylor said there's no ill will toward McKinlay or the other Democrats, but she responded defensively to questions about whether she should have talked to other Democrats before entering the race. She also said she took issue with a Palm Beach Post article in which several of them expressed surprise when Taylor announced her candidacy.
"Jeff Clemens, who's a state senator—and I've already served in the state [House]—said that we need to have a talk," she said. "You know, the interesting thing to me is none of those people have contacted me to ask me for permission to run for anything."
Democrats and Republicans running for Murphy's seat will attempt to follow in his footsteps: Murphy managed to win reelection in the highly competitive swing seat by a 19-point margin in 2014, focusing on nonpartisan issues like restoring a local lagoon.
McKinlay and Taylor both said they hope to take the same approach, and so will at least some of the Republicans who could run. Stephen Leighton, an official in the Martin County Sheriff's Office who said he is considering running as a Republican, likewise said the district needs a bipartisan, moderate representative. Another Republican who reportedly might run, K.C. Ingram Traylor, appeared in a campaign ad for Murphy's reelection last cycle.
Both sides could end up with a crowded primary: On the Republican side, St. Lucie County Commissioner Tod Mowery, 2014 nominee and former state Rep. Carl Domino, and Martin County School Board member Rebecca Negron have all entered the race, and several others are still considering. Democratic attorney Jonathan Chane has also floated his name, according to Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who previously was mentioned as a possible candidate. Chane did not respond to requests for comment.
Abruzzo said he supports McKinlay because she seems more in line with the district's moderate, independent character than Taylor, whom he described as partisan. Taylor, though, enthusiastically denied that.
"I am not in any way a liberal," she said. "I'm moderate, always have been, and I will always be that. I cannot say that for Melissa. I don't know what Melissa is. She just got on the county [commission]."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jack Fitzpatrick is a staff correspondent at National Journal. He has previously written for USA TODAY, NBCNews.com, Slate, The Arizona Republic and other newspapers and websites. He graduated from Arizona State University with a master's degree in mass communication and a bachelor's degree in journalism.