After months of speculating and strategizing about Florida's new congressional map, it took only two brief phone conversations for Republican U.S. Reps. Tom Rooney and Allen West to dramatically rearrange their political plans.
With the Florida Legislature close to finalizing its once- a-decade redrawing of political boundaries, Rooney called West on Friday, Jan. 27, to let him know that he was considering running in a newly drawn rural congressional district.
That would leave the Palm Beach County-Treasure Coast district where Rooney lives open for West, who was in the market for a new seat because his Palm Beach-Broward district is being redrawn from one with an even partisan balance to one with a pronounced Democratic tilt.
A night after their phone conversation, Rooney and West saw each other at the Palm Beach County GOP's annual Lincoln Day dinner in West Palm Beach. They didn't get a chance to talk.
"Have you ever been around West in a large room of people?" the low-key Rooney said of national tea party celebrity West. "People were literally tackling this guy. We did not have a private moment."
Two nights later, Rooney phoned West to tell him that he would in fact run in the new rural district and would publicly announce his plans at 4 p.m. the next day.
West, who said he prayed and talked with his family about switching districts after getting the initial call from Rooney, was ready to jump at the opportunity.
Less than an hour after Rooney went public last Tuesday with plans to leave District 18 to run in the new District 17, West announced that he would leave his District 22 to run in District 18.
A day after the Rooney and West announcements, former state House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, a Boca Raton Republican, abandoned his difficult U.S. Senate bid and jumped into the District 22 congressional race with an endorsement from West, who usually declines to back candidates in primaries.
'Fair Districts' effect
If the Florida Legislature's congressional redistricting plan survives an expected barrage of legal challenges, the maneuvers by Rooney and West should give both Republicans easier reelection campaigns than if they had remained in their current districts.
The moves also put an end to speculation that West might bolt his district to challenge Rooney in a bloody Republican primary.
In a traditional redistricting year, the GOP-controlled legislature would be expected to go out of its way to protect a rising Republican star like West. But Florida voters in 2010 approved a "Fair Districts" constitutional amendment that forbids favoring or disfavoring an incumbent or political party in redistricting.
When West was elected in 2010, District 22 was nearly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. But the plan expected to win final approval in the legislature this week would create a district where Democrats would hold a 9-point registration advantage and Barack Obama got 57 percent of the vote.
As the outspoken conservative West's redistricting predicament became clear, some national conservatives voiced puzzlement and outrage.
Rush Limbaugh accused the Republican establishment of "trying to write his district out of existence" as part of "an all-out assault on conservatives in the Republican Party."
West said legislators could have drawn a more balanced District 22 and still complied with the new Florida law.
"Everyone was aware that there was something nefarious that took this district in the direction it went," West said Friday.
Growth changes district
But Florida House Redistricting Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he and his colleagues were merely trying to comply with the new anti-gerrymandering law.
"I'm a huge fan of Congressman Allen West. I think he's a conservative hero," said Weatherford. "But when we were making our decisions, we were not allowed to factor in our political leanings."
While West faced danger in his District 22, Rooney also faced a redistricting dilemma.
Rooney's current congressional district includes parts of Palm Beach County, runs north to Fort Pierce and across the state to Punta Gorda, touching a total of eight counties. Since it was drawn in 2002, its population has swelled to more than 100,000 above the target for each congressional district in 2012.
The legislature's new map puts about 57 percent of Rooney's current constituents into District 18, where Rooney lives. The newly drawn District 17 includes about one-third of Rooney's current constituents from the western part of his district.
Rooney said he plans to move to Charlotte County to represent the new District 17.
"I'm leaving where I grew up. That's the hardest thing," said Rooney. The second-term incumbent was raised in Palm Beach Gardens as part of a family that is well-connected in Palm Beach County business and politics. He lives in Tequesta .
Agricultural bent appeals
But Rooney said the benefits of moving to District 17 outweighed his
reluctance to leave District 18. The western areas of Rooney's current district delivered the votes that enabled Rooney to win a three-candidate GOP primary for the seat in 2008. And the region's agriculture is the reason Rooney serves on the House Agriculture Committee and chairs a livestock subcommittee.
There are also political advantages. Republicans hold a three-point registration edge in the new District 17 and voted 56 percent for Republican John McCain in 2008. Had he remained in District 18, Rooney would have faced a Republican registration edge of less than 1 percent and an electorate that went 51 percent for Barack Obama in 2008.
West a better fundraiser
Staying in District 18 would likely mean tough reelection fights every two years, said Rooney, who describes himself as a "horrible fundraiser."
West is a prodigious fundraiser, with a national following, who has raised more than $5.9 million for his 2012 campaign. While the new District 18 is likely to be a battleground between the GOP and Democrats, it is better turf for a Republican than West's District 22 is shaping up to become.
"When you read and understand Sun Tzu, the smart commander is the one who can choose the battleground on which he will fight," West said Friday.
"Tom Rooney and Allen West made decisions that will enable us to continue to have our voices heard on Capitol Hill," said West, who said he has put his wife in charge of finding a new home in the district.
West was asked if he would have challenged Rooney in a primary had Rooney opted to stay in District 18.
"I don't know. I would have had to sit back and look at all the options available. I never go back and play hindsight 20-20," West said.
Rooney said he was never pressured by West or GOP leaders to make the move.
"This was me and my wife sitting down and saying where would I best serve, where would I be most useful, and politically where would be more conducive," Rooney said.
After he made it known he was thinking of running in District 17, Rooney said, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, encouraged the idea.
After he told West that he was thinking of moving to District 17, Rooney said, "he gave me the space to make the decision. He wasn't trying to pressure me one way or another. I'm not doing this to save Allen West. I thought this was the best decision for me and it turns out maybe this helps Allen West."