At a June fundraiser headlined by White House guru Karl Rove, incumbent Florida Rep. Clay Shaw told U.S. News that his race against the well-heeled lawyer Ron Klein would be "more expensive" than previous races. But that was all. "Every time I run, I have led the ticket," he said, noting that he received more votes in his district than the president and popular governor Jeb Bush in the 2004 election.
Shaw was right about the expense. Almost $8 million has been sunk into the race by both sides, making it among the costliest in the country. But what Shaw didn't foresee was the anti-incumbent wave that has swept across the country and is threatening to throw Shaw from a seat he has held for 26 years. With the finish line just a day away, polls show Klein and Shaw locked in a dead heat in what has become a bellwether race for both parties. Polls conducted by Democrats show their candidate up by as much as 6 percentage points, but prognosticators are calling the race a pure tossup, with the outcome depending on grass-roots, get-out-the-vote efforts by both parties.
Shaw has been forced to defend both his close ties to the Bush White House, with which he has voted about 90 percent of the time, and his argument that he's a moderate who puts Florida first. When former President Bill Clinton arrived in October to campaign for his opponent, Shaw went on the air touting his record working across party lines. The ad was also a jab at Klein, who took to the airwaves this summer to lambaste Shaw as a GOP rubber stamp when President Bush made a similar fundraising trip for Shaw. It was an early indicator of just how nasty the race would be. Klein's campaign strategy was simple: to tie Shaw to Bush, Vice President Cheney (the vice president is a close friend of Shaw's), and other alleged boogeymen as much as possible. Klein has also tried to capitalize on the fact that the district has the highest number of citizens over 65 in the country, slamming Shaw for his support of the prescription drug program. Klein's energy and relative youth, meanwhile, have provided a contrast in personalities to Shaw's low-key, somewhat grandfatherly persona. Shaw is a fierce campaigner, however, as demonstrated in his ads slamming Klein for working as a lawyer/lobbyist while serving as a state senator. Klein has insisted that he lobbied only local governments and that no conflict of interest existed.
Florida has become grudge-match ground for Democrats, and both parties (as well as their proxies) are investing heavily. Despite much of the rhetoric, neither candidate strays far from his party lines. Though Shaw had demonstrated an able feel for local politics, his congressional votes align closely with conservatives. He is pro-business, pro death penalty, and against abortion rights. Klein is also pro death penalty but supports abortion rights and has the support of labor unions. Klein describes himself as pro-business moderate. Their fight to straddle the middle ground has proved typical of many of the closest races across the country. But, typical of Florida, that turf has proven much more expensive here.