Was it just a gentle, instructive chiding from a senior party leader to an obstreperous junior member? Or something more?
Last week, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, criticized fellow Florida Rep. Alan Grayson for comparing the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan in a campaign email.
In a statement to Politico, Wasserman Schultz said she was "disappointed" in Grayson's imagery. "Both sides need to dial back that kind of rhetoric and look to bring more civility into politics."
But what is intriguing is that Wasserman Schultze's criticism may have been an early shot across the political bow in a future, high-stakes U.S. Senate race. That is, should Sen. Marco Rubio join the national GOP ticket in 2016, or Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson not seek reelection in 2018. Admittedly, each is a big "if." Yet it's not inconceivable that Wasserman Schultz and Grayson, both liberal Jews and strong partisans -- and neither camera shy -- could one day be facing one another in a statewide primary.
Handicapping the Race
How would they line up?
Wasserman Schultz has strong establishment support in the state, especially among professional women. Her base is South Florida, which is often determinative in Democratic primaries, but which can also be limiting in statewide general elections. (See Kendrick Meeks' dismal showing in 2010's three-way contest that sent Rubio to Washington.)
By contrast, Grayson's base is Central Florida, a critical swing area, and his greatest strength among lower middle class and working class voters. According the state's conventional political calculus, if he were to win the senate nomination, he would then -- by default --get the support of South Florida Democrat in the general election. Despite Grayson's controversial profile, this would make him competitive in a well-funded race.
On the other hand, a Democratic primary between these two would be brutal, costly, and thus potentially fatal for either in the general election, unless it is sweep year for the Democrats nationally.
The Old Slugger
Grayson, with three Harvard degrees and a small, personal fortune, first ran for Congress in a swing district in 2006 and was defeated by a centrist in the Democratic primary. In a largely self-financed campaign in 2008, he won both the primary and general election, on the ticket with Obama. In Congress that term, he struck media gold, with inflammatory comments like his charge that the GOP alternative to Obamacare was to not get sick, or the "die quickly." Later, he compared former Vice President Dick Cheney to a vampire.
But Grayson also became a lightning rod for GOP criticism, and in 2010 he was washed away in the Tea Party wave. In 2012, in a newly redistricted and heavily Democratic and Hispanic district, Grayson was reelected to Congress by a wide margin in what was for him a largely rhetoric-free campaign.
In his first year back in Washington, "Grayson 2.0" was a conciliatory incarnation, playing well with others, i.e. GOP House members, able to get numerous, small, incremental bits of legislation passed in this Congress, accomplishments he crows about to constituents in his district.
However, this shape-shifting has cost him with fans of his previous, harder left incarnation, the pugnacious, "people's champion" image, which built a national following and fundraising base, critical to any future, statewide race. And, until the KKK charge, he had largely faded from the national media, as Wasserman Schultz has continued to keep her visibility high. (She was recently on The Daily Show, promoting her new book; Grayson has never been invited.)
Sticking to His Guns (But Not Drones)
Typically, and despite Wasserman Schultz's criticism and the predictable yammering from the Orlando media, Grayson stuck to his guns in the ensuring controversy, saying, "If the hood fits... " It was the "the old Grayson," landing a bulls eye for his national base and, in so doing, a ticket back into the national (i.e. MSNBC) spotlight, if only briefly. This week's hearings on civilian casualties of drone attacks in Pakistan reinforced his tack back to the left. In a recent TV appearance, Grayson declared, "I am very disturbed by this idea that whenever we see something bad in the world, we should bomb it."
The Central Florida congressman may, as has sometimes been his wont, gone a half step too far in his rhetoric. Rather than the Klan, Tea Party adherents -- and even more so Sunbelt Republicans -- may trace their political DNA to the business-orientated, coat-and-tie, White Citizens Councils. But Grayson's instincts have been sound so far, and the former high school chess club whiz may know exactly what he is doing.
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