ORLANDO, Fla.—The people manning the phones at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades union hall in Orlando keep their heads down, stenciling slogans on poster board and making calls to Democratic primary voters. It takes a minute for them to realize that Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., has just walked in to thank them for their work, un-missable in a black denim blazer, cowboy boots, and an American flag tie. As he walks from desk to desk, he is followed by a two-man documentary crew that has been with him since July 4. One volunteer puts down his phone, picks up a copy of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and flips open to the title page. He wants Grayson to sign it.
"Oh, of course!" says Grayson, scribbling his name on one of the central texts of progressive politics. "It's one of my favorite books. I've got a copy that has all of my favorite parts highlighted."
He actually does. Grayson was a lawyer and telecommunications executive before he got into politics. (Consequently, he's worth more than $30 million.) He studied politicians like Huey Long and historians like Zinn, and decided he could win by being blunt, liberal, and profligate. In 2010, he's one of the few Democrats nationwide trying to outmatch the passion and organization of the Tea Party movement.
Outmaneuvering the Tea Party takes a multipronged strategy. Grayson has tried to work on the problems that inspire the movement while dismissing the movement itself as racist, stupid, and crazy. For example, he says, he has found common ground with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas. "I agree with him on the wars," says Grayson. "I agree with him on civil liberties. We've worked together very effectively regarding the Fed."
And now here comes the dig. "Many people, improperly, lump together libertarians and the Tea Parties. That's really wrong. Many of the libertarians are physicists, and many of the Tea Party people don't bathe. There's really not much in common there!"
Local Republicans are, understandably, not amused. Seven of them are competing for the chance to challenge Grayson, and some have even made him the focus of their primary campaigns. State Rep. Kurt Kelly calls himself "the conservative who can beat Alan Grayson" and encourages contributors to "donate today to beat Alan Grayson." Grayson is also a one-man full employment program for conservative talk radio in the district. On the day that he visited the union hall, Republican contender Todd Long and his campaign manager Phil Russo took over a local AM station for an hour, tearing Grayson apart.
"It would just be a disgrace if Grayson wins," says Russo. "The only people worse than Alan Grayson are Alan Grayson supporters."
This is just what Grayson wants. His re-election strategy: Register more Democrats, knock on their doors, and fire them up by pouring ridicule on the GOP and the Tea Party movement. He appears on CNN and MSNBC regularly, most recently to demand that White House spokesman Robert Gibbs be fired for sneering at the "professional left." In a conversation inside one of the union's small offices, he quotes some of his better one-liners about Republicans as "wingnuts" who want patients to "die quickly." They're offended? He couldn't care less.
"I feel bad sometimes," says Grayson, talking to a small group of supporters, "because I feel like Democrats should have delivered more for the people who supported us. In 2008, 75 percent of the people who voted for me were Democrats. Only 23 percent of Republicans voted for me. What does that tell me? I should be doing the most for the people who voted for me, not the people who voted the other way."
Many Republican candidates respond to Grayson's provocations by trying to ignore them. Long, who has mailed 30,000 voters copies of his book about conservative values, sticks to talking about the congressman's voting record and a poll that suggests Grayson is losing. (Grayson says he's 15 points ahead of the GOP's challengers.) Bruce O'Donoghue, a businessman and first-time candidate, calls Grayson an "entertainer" but refuses to respond to Grayson's attacks on Republicans.
No one exemplifies this mellow approach to Grayson like the man most people here consider the Republican front-runner, Daniel Webster. He represented most of this district in the state Senate for a generation, then retired, then rode back into the fray when the party begged him to take on Grayson. He'll take him on, but he won't respond to his taunts. Instead, he refers to his experience in the state legislature in a series of koans as he waits for his latest high-profile endorser, Mike Huckabee, to arrive for a rally.
"When you win, regardless about how you feel about who got you there, you're serving them," says Webster. "Don't burn any bridges. Don't make it personal."