TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A year after complaining about his congressional salary, first-term incumbent Republican Steve Southerland from Panama City hopes to hold off former longtime Democratic state lawmaker Al Lawson of Tallahassee in Florida's 2nd Congressional District where newly drawn boundaries could favor the challenger.
A Panama City mortician and tea party favorite, Southerland ousted former Rep. Allen Boyd, a seven-term Democrat and Vietnam war veteran, in 2010 when Republicans regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Boyd narrowly survived a primary challenge then from Lawson, a Tallahassee native and basketball star at Florida A&M who played briefly in the pros before starting a 28-year legislative career in 1982.
"He's very well-known and very well regarded which makes him a formidable challenger to an embattled congressman, who spent much of his first -term whining about his six-figure salary," said Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan said. "It's a race that's top targeted for state and national Democrats."
Lawson's challenge has also caught the eye of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has poured money into Southerland's effort to hang onto the seat. The NRCC has paid for an ad that hammers Lawson for his support of President Barack Obama's health care plan and portrays him as a career politician and free-spending liberal who voted for several pay increases for legislators during the time that he served.
The 6-foot-8 Lawson, whose basketball prowess helped propel him out of the north Florida tobacco fields, vanquished his primary opposition in August, winning nearly two-thirds of the vote in a four-way race that included state Rep. Leonard Bembry.
Jordan referenced a statement by Southerland in the summer of 2011 when he said his $174,000 congressional salary was "not so much" during at a town hall meeting. "This job doesn't mean that much to me."
Democrats immediately pounced on the statement and haven't let up since, also pointing out Southerland's participation in a group dip into the Sea of Galilee last year during a congressional junket to Israel.
Southerland has avoided those issues during his campaign, instead focusing on most of the conservative fiscal and social issues championed by the right wing of the GOP while linking Lawson with Obama at every opportunity.
"Sen. Lawson might find it negative that we're highlighting his record, but we think that's just sharing the truth with the voters," Southerland spokesman Matt McCullough said. "Al Lawson sort of keeps defaulting back to the position that Steve Southerland is some partisan and his record just doesn't show that."
Endorsed by the National Rifle Association, Southerland favors a balanced budget amendment, getting out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible and claims his views on women's rights have been distorted by the media and attack ads.
"You're going to hear a lot of things about Steve Southerland, a lot of false attacks from the Washington, D.C., operatives who have never stepped foot in our district," Southerland said in response to a constituent question during a town hall teleconference.
He concedes, however, that the nation's capital has become largely dysfunctional.
"Washington is in a terrible mess, a terrible mess," Southerland said. "They have spent money that has not been their money to spend and in no greater area is that true than in the area of Social Security."
Lawson, who frequently worked across party lines after Republicans gained control of the Legislature in the mid-1990s, wants to protect Social Security and opposes proposals that would turn Medicare into a voucher system, believing that would force seniors to pay more. He favors expanded early childhood education and wants to protect Pell grants and other programs to ensure college is accessible.
"One of the biggest problems that they have in Washington is a lot of partisan politics," Lawson said. "My opponent has voted straight down party lines on every vote."
Lawson, 64, noted he'd chaired legislative committees in both the House and Senate under Republican administrations.
"I always wanted to vote for what was best for the constituent," Lawson said. "On both sides."
The 47-year-old, Tennessee-born Southerland opposes abortion rights, gay rights and is pro-gun rights. He campaigned for lower taxes, less regulation, abolishing the Department of Education and shrinking the size of government in general.
Panama City businessman Floyd Patrick Miller, an Independent who qualified as a write-in candidate, wants to legalize marijuana and raise the hourly minimum wage to $15.50 among other things.
The 2nd Congressional District is located in the eastern part of the Florida Panhandle and has leaned Republican in recent elections although the largest city is Tallahassee, a heavily leaning Democratic area. It and Panama City are the district's two largest cities.
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