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After Beating Allen West, House Freshman Faces New Fight

Rep.-elect Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., speaks during a news conference introducing 37 of the newly elected House Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 13.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Rep.-elect Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., speaks during a news conference introducing 37 of the newly elected House Democrats at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 13.

Of the eight new seats that Democrats picked up in the House of Representatives in November, four of them come from Florida.

Democrats were aided by a big turnout for President Obama, plus new rules that helped erase a Republican advantage in how districts are drawn in the Sunshine State.

One of those new Democratic seats is held by Patrick Murphy, the House's youngest member. He's already well-known nationally, not so much for who he is, but for whom he beat: Allen West, the former Army lieutenant colonel who became one of the faces of the 2010 freshmen Republican class in the House.

Murphy, 29, recently joined other incoming Democratic freshmen for orientation and a meeting with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who singled him out for national attention.

"Just defeated somebody you all may know — a guy named Allen West. You guys may have heard of him," Murphy said, to laughter from the crowd.

West gained a national following through his frequent appearances on Fox News and his incendiary rhetoric — charging, for example, that at least 70 House Democrats were members of the Communist Party.

West raised more than $18 million and outspent Murphy more than 4 to 1. But Murphy eked out a win, beating West by fewer than 2,000 votes.

'The Tea Party Started Taking Hold'

Murphy's old campaign headquarters in Palm Beach County is mostly in boxes. He's scrambling to hire staff and set up district offices in the three counties he now represents along Florida's Atlantic coast.

Although this was his first run for public office, Murphy comes from a politically active family that owns a major construction company in Florida. Until recently, the family's fundraising ties were mostly to GOP candidates, and Murphy was registered as a Republican.

Murphy says the war in Iraq and the economic downturn moved him toward the Democratic Party. "Then the Tea Party starting taking hold and people like Allen West won in my backyard. And I just decided I'm not going to sit back and complain and not do anything about it," he says.

Murphy announced he would run as a Democrat against West in Florida's 22nd Congressional District. But then, because of redistricting, West announced he was moving up Florida's coast and would seek re-election in Florida's 18th, an area more favorable to Republicans.

While there were more Republicans there, most had never cast a ballot for West. Murphy's ads used West's incendiary comments against him — and Murphy says they paid off.

"It wasn't necessarily the Democratic turnout that helped us win. It was the Republicans that crossed over, that left Allen West to support us, is why we won this race," he says. "So, I think a lot of people saw hopefully that my background was a better fit for getting our country back on the right track. And I continue to hope to prove that."

'It Wasn't Working'

Murphy is a certified public accountant who calls himself a "business Democrat" and a moderate committed to bipartisanship. He says he and many other freshmen — Democrats and Republicans — ran on the promise that they'd work to end gridlock and get things done in Washington.

"So, I think this election was much different than the 2010, the my-way-or-the-highway mentality," Murphy says. "The American public saw it for two years. It wasn't working — in fact, it probably set our country back. And they want it changed."

David Wasserman, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, is skeptical that Murphy will be able to make good on some of those promises.

"Murphy portrays himself as a moderate Democrat. But the truth is, there's not a whole lot of room for moderation in Congress anymore," he says. "There aren't a lot of votes taken where you can truly show your differences from your party leadership. We see a lot of party-line votes, not a lot of nuance, not a lot that's brought to the floor where there's strong incentive to break from your party."

The not-yet-30 Murphy says that like many of his generation, he's fiscally responsible but socially progressive.

It's a moderate formula that the Democrat will need to accentuate if he hopes to win re-election in two years. His district is home to more Republicans than Democrats. The day it elected him, it also went for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.