New district shapes Webster-Grabelle race for Congress


A political veteran with nearly four decades of experience and a first-time candidate are facing each other in the Republican primary in Florida's Congressional District 11.

U.S. Rep. Dan Webster, 67, is seeking a fourth term in Congress but is battling Justin Grabelle, 34, in the Aug. 30 primary.

The race is largely the result of a court-ordered redrawing of congressional districts, which sliced and diced Webster's old District 10, leaving portions of the district in six new districts. The new lines also converted District 10 into a Democratic stronghold, as President Barack Obama won it with 61 percent of the vote in 2012.

Webster, who lives in Clermont after residing and operating a family air-conditioning and heating business in Orange County for years, opted to run in District 11, which includes his Lake County home and was a district that 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried with 60 percent of the vote.

"It wasn't like there was some district cut out for me. It was mainly I was cut out of the district by chopping it up," Webster said.

He decided to run in the district being vacated by U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, a Spring Hill Republican who is retiring. But with Nugent's support, Grabelle, who was the congressman's chief of staff, was already running for the seat.

Webster's move has become a point of contention.

"You shouldn't just pick and choose where you run because you want to be there, you should run because you care about the community you represent," said Grabelle in an interview in Ocala, where he has home that is ironically outside the newly redrawn district. Grabelle has pledged to move if he is elected.

Webster has never represented Sumter County, which includes most of Republican-leaning retirement community known as The Villages, or Citrus and Hernando counties, all of which are in the redrawn District 11.

But he represented a portion of Marion County when he was first elected to Congress and has always represented most of Lake County, which has many regional ties to Sumter, including the local state college.

Grabelle believes he has an advantage because of his work for Nugent in the district, as well as working as a top aide to former U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a Brooksville Republican. It means he has been dealing with the district, its local leaders and communities for the past decade.

In fact, in an unusual twist, as Nugent's chief of staff, Grabelle stayed in the district, traveling to Washington, D.C., as needed.

"I think that's a big distinction between me and my opponent," Grabelle said. "I have lived and worked in this district for 10 years, and I know the issues in our community."

The fundamental choice for Republican voters in the district is between an experienced political leader, who has a long record in support of conservative causes, and a newcomer, albeit one with deep knowledge of the congressional process, who says it's time for a change and a more aggressive conservative agenda.

First elected to the state House in 1980, when Democrats dominated Tallahassee and the state, Webster has been one of the leaders of the rise of the GOP in Florida, including serving from 1996 to 1998 as the first Republican House speaker since Reconstruction.

He has a long list of accomplishments on conservative issues, although as the father of six home-schooled children, he likes to cite his support for allowing home schooling in Florida as one of his top achievements. But he has also been a staunch opponent of abortion and has the endorsement of the National Rifle Association.

"I've done things. I've accomplished things," Webster said, citing challenges to the Democratic leadership earlier in his career and helping shape the Republican majority in Tallahassee.

In his campaign speeches, Webster usually cites the fact that he has cut his congressional pay, paid for his own health care, reduced his office expenses and refused to take overseas trips that are popular in Congress. He said it is part of "getting my own house in order," as he advocates for issues like a balanced-budget amendment.

He also notes his challenge to former House Speaker John Boehner, who fell out of favor with conservatives in the U.S. House.

Grabelle has criticized Webster for being part of a Congress that has been plagued by gridlock and an inability to pass legislation for the last half-dozen years.

"You need to send people with new ideas (to Washington)," Grabelle said at a forum hosted by the Citrus Chronicle earlier this month. "If you keep sending the same people there, you are going to get the same result, every single time."

Grabelle said one of his priorities if elected will be improved funding for the military and helping veterans once they return from service. He said he remains motivated by the experience of his brother, a career naval officer who served on the USS Cole when it was attacked by terrorists, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors.

"I'm going to fight for the people who fought for us," Grabelle said at the Citrus forum, adding he would seek a place on the House Veterans Affairs Committee in his first term.

Grabelle has also pledged to limit himself to 10 years in office, if elected, while working to pass a constitutional amendment setting congressional term limits.

Both Webster and Grabelle support Donald Trump, although each supported a different candidate in the presidential primaries, with Webster backing Jeb Bush and Grabelle supporting Scott Walker.

Through Aug. 10, Webster had more than a two-to-one fund raising advantage over his rival, having collected $776,853 in contributions to Grabelle's $317,042, according to the Federal Election Commission.

"The establishment is funding his campaign," Grabelle said. "How much did he really challenge them if they are willing to give him money?"

Webster said he has taken some money from political committees but he also has strong "grassroots" support from a constituency that he has built up over a 36-year political career in the state House, state Senate and Congress.

The winner of the Aug. 30 primary will face Dave Koller, an Ocala Democrat, and Bruce R. Riggs, a no-party candidate from Crystal River, in the general election.

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