Political clairvoyants see far different futures for South Florida's newest members of Congress, even though they're just 46 days into their congressional careers.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, is likely to have a relatively smooth path to re-election next year in her Broward-Palm Beach county district, according to prognosticators at the non-partisan Crystal Ball, which analyzes politics and predicts elections nationwide.
But U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, faces a much tougher fight to hang on to the congressional seat he narrowly won in November. The Crystal Ball rates him as the most vulnerable Democrat in the entire U.S. House.
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The assessments – based largely on the underlying makeup of the two congressional districts and to a lesser extent the expected political landscape in November 2014 – ring true both to Ira Sabin, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican party, and Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party.
Sabin senses opportunity for Republicans in the 18th District, represented by Murphy since Jan. 3. "We stand a very, very good chance," he said. "It's going to be a huge opportunity for us, based on what I see now."
And, barring a repeat of the seismic shift that accompanied the 2010 elections, when demoralized Democrats stayed home and the tea party energized Republicans, Sabin conceded that the Crystal Ball is probably right about Frankel.
None of the other five members of Congress from Broward or Palm Beach counties — Deutch, Mario Diaz-Balart, Alcee Hastings, Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson — is seen by the Crystal Ball or the independent Cook Political Report as having any difficulty winning re-election.
The Cook report has Murphy in its most vulnerable category of "toss up." His seat is likely to get more attention and more money than all the other Broward and Palm Beach county members of Congress combined.
The reasons are clear, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at Sabato's Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Crystal Ball is named for its founder, political scientist Larry Sabato.
•Murphy is one of only nine Democrats in the country elected from districts that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney won in November. Unlike Murphy, Kondik said most are veteran legislators with "individual brands as moderate, conservative Democrats. These are guys who are entrenched and still hold onto the conservative Democratic brand."
• The 18th Congressional District, which takes in northern Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, with 38 percent Republican, 36 percent Democratic and 26 percent independent/no party affiliation registered voters, is a textbook definition of a swing district.
•Even though incumbents have better than a 90 percent re-election rate, a president's party typically loses seats in an off-year election like 2014's, and the most vulnerable members of a president's party are the ones who aren't yet entrenched. "This is one of the obvious ones that could be washed away," Kondik said.
• National Republicans are expected to invest heavily to capture the seat, Ceasar said. Murphy supporters are already beating the drums to raise money on his behalf.
• Murphy narrowly won in November, taking 50.3 percent of the vote against U.S. Rep. Allen West, the tea party Republican who was best known for generating controversy with his incendiary rhetoric. Obama won just 48 percent of the vote in the district, which means some people who voted for Romney switched parties and voted for Murphy instead of West. "I would say West lost it more than Murphy won it," Kondik said.
In 2014, Republicans could do well with what Kondik termed a "mainstream challenger" who could recapture voters who are inclined to vote Republican but were alienated by West.
Sabin said party leaders have already spoken with half a dozen Republicans — he declined to name names — who are considering seeking the party's nomination.
Yet Sabin concedes Murphy can't be counted out.
Murphy began raising money for his re-election campaign immediately after he won the 2012 election. And he's charting a course calculated to help him appeal to voters in a district that, on paper, at least, he shouldn't have won.
Attempting to brand himself as something other than a stereotypical liberal Democrat, Murphy voted on Feb. 6 in favor of a Republican plan to require the president to submit a balanced budget, a move that was supported by 227 Republicans and just 26 Democrats.