Mutual Irritation Society
Alan Grayson tries to show Democrats how to take on the Tea Party.
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."
Huckabee arrives and tries to make the same point, calling Webster a "chef in the kitchen" instead of "a person who is just serving someone else's food." His audience seems to understand the metaphor and applauds. Buttoned-down Webster, argues Huckabee, is the obvious antidote to Grayson. "You don't just have an opportunity here," says Huckabee. "I would say you have an obligation to replace the person you have."
That's how Webster's rivals feel, too. Not even O'Donoghue, who was the front-runner in the GOP primary until Webster jumped in belatedly, wants to say anything bad about him. "Dan and I are friends," he says. "At least, I thought we were friends!" He stops himself short. "I'm just kidding. We're friends. I don't see the fight in Dan, but I love and respect him."
Grayson minimizes the threat he might face from Webster. Liberal donors, he points out, have responded to him by helping him build the biggest war chest of any freshman Democrat. He has $1.3 million stowed away; Webster has about $100,000. Let Webster play moderate, because Grayson has mapped out a way to portray him as an out-of-touch cipher.
"Whoever wins is going to be an extreme right-winger," says Grayson. "Because they're all extreme right-wingers. They couldn't find a normal person to run against me. Every one of these candidates is so far to the right it's as if they're going to fall off the face of the earth."
Few other Democrats in Grayson's position talk like this. Some conversations with voters in the district demonstrate why. In 2008, they voted for Grayson and the Obama-Biden ticket, narrowly, because of disgust with the Bush administration's failures. It was tough to find a job then. It's tougher now. That lends more credibility to the critiques of Republicans like Webster, who promise to kick-start the economy by cutting taxes on businesses and slashing entitlement spending.
It's a critique that appeals even to voters like Jeff Evans, 49, who was laid off from his trucking job in December 2009. He was receiving unemployment benefits until a Republican filibuster stopped them this summer, leaving him without a revenue stream for weeks. But even though Grayson and his fellow Democrats eventually restored his benefits, Evans isn't sure he will support Grayson. It would do him more good, he said, and allow him to keep his dignity, if they "let the small businesses create more jobs."
Grayson knows how popular that argument is. The solution: Argue that Republicans have no credibility to make it. He pivots off of one of Webster's ideas, a proposal to cut the budget to what it was in 2007. Webster suggests that Floridians were perfectly well off when the government spent at that lower level. Grayson prefers to ask whether voters realize that a cut like that would mean lower Social Security payments.
"It's a stupid idea," says Grayson. "Nobody has a time machine, OK? The world has changed a little bit since 2007. For one thing, there're a lot of more people out of work." Soon he's on a roll, explaining how $12 trillion of capital disappeared in the "Bush implosion" of 2008. That's who voters need to blame, he says. Why aren't they as angry as he is?
"In 18 months, two centuries of work, the collective effort of millions of people, all gone," says Grayson of the financial crisis. "So now the Republicans want to go back to 2007? It's a little bit late for that."
When he's done talking to me, Grayson talks with more volunteers. He poses for more photos with them. About a dozen wear T-shirts that say "Grayson. Truth." Everywhere they go, they're presented with evidence that voters blame their party for the economic mess, and here he is, the Democrat who's defending what his party's trying to do.
"He irritates the Republicans," says one volunteer, special education teacher Audrey Ais. "They need to be irritated! They spend plenty of time irritating us."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.