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Byline: Ben Terris

ORLANDO, Fla.–In a broad sense, the battle for a newly drawn congressional district in central Florida comes down to who has more sway with voters: mayors or presidents of motorcycle gangs.

Reps. John Mica and Sandy Adams are less than 100 days from facing off in a GOP primary in the new 7th Congressional District, and they are going about garnering support in very different ways, with Mica taking the traditional top-down path and Adams trying to leverage the grassroots, angry-voter dynamic that propelled her into office two years ago.

The diverging strategies say much about the first primary of 2012 that pits a longtime lawmaker against a first-term member backed by the tea party. And it reflects the intra-party tension that has bedeviled House Republicans for two years. The outcome could say much about which archetype–the outsider obstructionist or the veteran creature of Washington–will hold the power in Congress. In other words, it may help answer the question of whether the electoral conflagration of 2010 was a fluke.

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If establishment support still matters, Mica has the race cold. “John has done so much for the community, it would be hard for me to say anything bad about John,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer told National Journal while mingling at a $175-a-person event for the Historical Society of Central Florida. “But I’m not sure having the Democratic mayor of Orlando endorse you in a Republican primary is necessarily what he would want, so I’ll let him decide on that.”

The next day at a prayer breakfast in Apopka, a city that has been drawn into the new district, John Land, the longest-serving mayor in Florida’s history, said, “John Mica’s done more for central Florida than anyone I know.”

But Adams, whom The New York Times dubbed “the toughest freshman,” isn’t worried about Mica’s big-name endorsements–especially when they come from politicians who have been in office for more than 50 years, as Land has.

Instead, Adams has in her corner guys such as Rudy (Stogie) Zuclich–president of a Seminole County motorcycle club–who came to a town-hall event during a congressional recess wearing a leather vest covered in patches and carrying a couple of cigars in his front pocket. He has been backing Adams ever since she supported the bikers’ rides for charity. She has even spoken at motorcycle-club functions.

“I don’t really pay attention to John Mica; Sandy is doing her job, and we’re unifying around her to get her support,” he said. Zuclich, who has something of a tea party bent himself, said he rarely thinks highly of politicians but Adams is an exception. “We’re going to do whatever it takes,” he vowed.

From a traditional standpoint, Mica holds plenty of advantages, and not just because he has more than $1.2 million cash-on-hand or because he’s the chairman of the influential Transportation Committee. That post has allowed Mica to tout district projects he has helped get built, such as the bridge over the St. John’s River and the forthcoming 61-mile commuter rail line that will run directly through Orlando. Adams has branded him a spender and an “earmarker,” labels that Mica embraces.

“This is a growing area, and they’ve had infrastructure needs; and to have someone to fight for them and see something tangible come back, I don’t think you’d find anyone opposed to that,” Mica said, while driving through his hometown of Winter Park. “I’d almost give anyone an award if they could name anything [Adams has] done in the community.”

His record shows, Mica says, the value of seniority–and power–within Congress. “We need people to stick around,” he said. “It’s really the best way to get things done for the sake of central Florida.” Seniority hurt many incumbents at the polls in 2010, though, and Adams is banking on that tea party backlash continuing. For her, the race is less about the hyper-locality of a district and much more about a big-picture narrative–one about reining in spending for the good of the nation.

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“People recognize that somebody is paying for it,” Adams said about the projects that Mica has brought to central Florida. “And that means the taxpayers are paying for it. It wasn’t that he got it for them; they paid for it. The question then becomes: At what expense do they pay for it?”

As far as Adams is concerned, Mica is making the argument for her: Let him point to as many projects as he wants, because they are emblematic of a national problem. Adams even wrote a fundraising letter last month in which she called Mica “the personification of all that went wrong with our Republican majority.” She stood by that sentiment last week.

In reality, both members of Congress rank as conservatives. According to NJ’s annual vote ratings, Mica is the 57th most conservative member and Adams is the 31st. But Adams has had some help in trying to make the chairman look like the tea party’s worst enemy. A recent report from the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington stated that Mica has more family members registered as lobbyists than any other lawmaker. Then there’s the transportation bill, one of the last remaining big-ticket, project-laden pieces of legislation around, which will inevitably cost more than some antispending zealots want.

So when Mica’s campaign staffers point out that the chairman held an event last month that raised $120,000 in one evening (nearly as much as the $122,000 that Adams raised in the whole first quarter), she shrugs it off.

“I’ve always been out-raised,” Adams said. “But it doesn’t matter how much money you raise if your message is out of touch.”

Ben Terris

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