For weeks, the Republican Party of Florida has paid for ads mocking Democratic state House candidate Joe Saunders, dubbing the civil-rights activist "Special Interest Joe" and claiming the University of Central Florida alum is "new to the neighborhood."
Not to be outdone, the Florida Democratic Party has been mailing fliers that trash Republican Marco Pena, a fundraiser and community outreach specialist for Florida Hospital, as a "health-care executive" who "puts insurance company profits ahead of our health."
The attacks are happening in House District 49, a new seat in east Orange County where total campaign spending is expected to top $1 million. And they underscore the venomous nature of big-dollar elections in Florida -- even in a race between two candidates who have never held elected office before.
Because the Republican Party has more money, its attacks have been loudest. One TV spot superimposes Saunders' head on a cartoon body and depicts him driving a red convertible with a sack of cash in his lap.
"A regular Joe wouldn't pretend to live at his brother's house just to run for office. But Joe Saunders is no regular Joe," the narrator says. "He's Special Interest Joe."
Saunders only recently moved into the district, where he now lives with his brother near UCF. But he said the spot creates a false impression that he has no connection to the area at all -- even though he has lived in Orlando for more than a decade and attended UCF at the same time as Pena.
The "special interest" charge is based on the fact that much of the $178,000 Saunders has raised so far comes from a network he has developed while working with the gay-rights group Equality Florida. Pena actually has raised more money: $212,000, much of it from businesses and lobbying groups.
"Everything about that ad is offensive to me. It's just dishonest," Saunders said.
But the Florida Democratic Party has also hit hard, painting Pena as too conservative for the Democratic-leaning district. One television ad calls him "Tea Partier Pena."
Pena said Democrats are distorting his positions. For instance, the ads have criticized him for opposing President Obama's health-care overhaul -- while singling out provisions, like allowing children to stay on their parents insurance until age 26, that are popular with district voters.
But Pena says he supports that provision and would vote for it on a stand-alone basis.
Pena also said he would have broken ranks with the Republican-controlled Legislature on some issues. He said he would have voted against requiring state employees to undergo drug testing and against a new state university in Polk County.
"I haven't taken one single vote in the state Legislature, and they're trying to tie me to every vote," Pena said. "And I think that's unfair."
The attacks have served to obscure what are genuinely deep differences between the two candidates.
Pena, for instance, has said he would support legislation to require parental consent -- rather than only parental notification -- before a minor can get an abortion. Saunders opposes the measure.
Saunders supports changes that would make it harder for multi-state companies to shield income from Florida, making them pay a higher corporate-income tax. Pena says he would vote to eliminate the corporate-income tax altogether.
Pena said he would vote for a bill -- alternatively referred to as "parent trigger" or "parent empowerment" -- that would allow a majority of parents at a failing school to compel changes, including forcing it to convert into a charter. Saunders said he would vote against it.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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