A redrawn Orlando-area district has left one of Florida’s longest-serving congressional members in a tough re-election fight against a well-financed newcomer who has the backing of national Democrats.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, 73, a Winter Park Republican who is seeking his 13th term in Congress, is facing Stephanie Murphy, 38, a Winter Park Democrat and businesswoman, in Congressional District 7.
The battleground is what the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee identified earlier this year as “the most competitive” district in Florida, after a court-ordered redistricting process. Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney each received the support of 50 percent of Congressional District 7 voters in 2012, while Republican Gov. Rick Scott eked out 50.9 percent against Democratic challenger Charlie Crist in 2014 among district voters.
“It is a much more competitive district,” Mica said about the district, which includes all of Seminole County and a portion of Orange County, including Winter Park and a quarter of the population of Orlando.
But Mica said the difference is not so much the court-ordered redistricting as it is the fact that U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has pledged to spend some $4 million helping Murphy in the race, with $3.1 million already spent on cable and television advertising through mid-October.
“They’re coming after the seat. I don’t think they care about me,” Mica said, explaining that his seat is one of 30 GOP seats targeted by the Democrats across the nation, “and I happen to be one of them.”
Mica has hit back at Murphy, noting she jumped into the race after Democrats failed to recruit other better-known candidates and that she switched from a no-party affiliation to the Democratic Party shortly before qualifying in June.
He has also used Pelosi in a television ad, asserting Murphy is “perfect for Washington, D.C., but not for Central Florida.”
Murphy has Washington ties. She grew up in Virginia after her family escaped from Vietnam on a boat lift in 1979 when she was an infant. She served four years as a national security specialist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense before moving to Florida in 2008.
She is an executive at Sungate Capital, an investment firm, and is an instructor at Rollins College, where she teaches business and social entrepreneurship classes.
“I’m proud of the support my campaign is getting,” Murphy said. “But I’m focused on the issues that matter to the people in Central Florida.”
Murphy said Mica is out of touch on issues important to the reshaped district, including women’s issues, gun control and gay rights.
“He is a career politician who has been part of the problem,” Murphy said, noting Mica has a “very partisan record,” rarely voting against the GOP majority.
“I have been frustrated by the gridlock and dysfunction in Washington, and I feel that because of how partisan things have gotten there, there’s not anything being done,” Murphy said. “If we’re going to change Washington, we need to change the type of people we send there.”
There is a third candidate looming in the race: Donald Trump.
Murphy’s campaign has repeatedly tied Mica to the Republican presidential candidate, including launching at least 10 campaign mailers in the race, with many emphasizing the Trump linkage.
In a WESH television debate, Murphy accused Mica of “doubling down” on his support for Trump, despite Trump’s lewd comments about women caught in a 2005 video.
“He continues to endorse this person who has very harmful views towards women,” Murphy said.
Mica said Murphy was distorting his record, noting that he has strongly condemned Trump’s remarks, although he has not withdrawn his endorsement.
Democrats believe Mica’s support for Trump could hurt in a district, but Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton also has high unfavorable numbers in the district.
“I don’t know if that is the wisest strategy,” Mica said, asserting Trump remains popular in the district.
Among the issues the candidates have clashed over has been gun control in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.
Murphy has accused Mica of opposing universal background checks and “no fly, no buy” legislation that would ban suspected terrorists from purchasing weapons. Mica said he supported a “no fly” proposal by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, which had a provision for quicker legal challenges by people who say they were wrongly put on the list of suspected terrorists.
The National Rifle Association has paid for mailers in support of Mica, while a gun-control group founded by Gabrielle Giffords, a former Arizona congresswoman who nearly died in a mass shooting, has financed mailers supporting Murphy.
In contrast to Murphy’s charges that he is a “career politician,” Mica, a former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has emphasized his long record in delivering benefits to the district including a new veterans hospital and numerous transportation projects, such as improvements to Interstate 4 and the expansion of Orlando International Airport.
“I have a solid record of accomplishment,” Mica said at the WESH debate.
Murphy said each member of Congress looks out for local communities’ “economic interests and works to bring federal dollars back home.”
“That’s the bare minimum,” Murphy said, while asserting Mica is on the wrong side of district voters on many other issues, ranging from gun control to “equal pay” legislation for women.
“Do these votes he has made over the years really represent our values as Central Floridians?” Murphy asked.
Mica has not faced strong opposition in most of his re-election campaigns, although he has had two serious challenges in elections that followed congressional redistricting.
In 2012, Mica turned back a primary challenge from Republican Congresswoman Sandy Adams who ended up in the same district with Mica because of redistricting.
Mica likened his current challenge to his 2002 campaign when he faced another well-financed Democrat, Wayne Hogan of Jacksonville. He said it was bitter campaign where he was outspent by his opponent.
“We had to wait and take the punishment, but we beat him 60-40 (percent),” Mica said.