He’s a political conundrum of sorts, a man whose bombastic rhetoric and unapologetic style has simultaneously cemented him as both a “Public Enemy No. 1” to those on the left and a bastion of conservative values to those on the right.
Florida Republican Congressman and Tea Party darling Allen Westhas comes to mean a lot of things to a lot of people, a point never more apparent during his tight bid to hold Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy and win a second term in Washington.
His presence has served to galvanize the Republican base, while proving equally the lightning rod for a Democratic constituency that would love nothing more than to send him packing.
West faces a tough re-election challenge in one of the country’s most closely watched races. His blistering attacks on the Democratic Party and President Barack Obama have proved to be a powerful campaign fundraising tool for West and a rallying cry for Democrats.
Murphy has hammered him for his unwillingness to compromise, blaming the intransigence of West and other first-term Republicans for the gridlock in Washington.
“I speak the truth, and I think that’s what a lot of people are upset about,” West said in a recent interview.
The 51-year-old first-term legislator and retired Army lieutenant colonel has amassed one of the largest campaign war chests among House Republicans. Only House Speaker John Boehner and former Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachman have raised more money.
Murphy, a 29-year-old businessman and political newcomer, has strong backing from party headquarters and is one of the best-funded Democratic challengers in the country.
West’s biting critiques of his colleagues across the aisle began making headlines – and made him a national figure – shortly after he assumed office two years ago.
Earlier this year, he said as many as 81 House Democrats were members of the Communist Party, although he provided no proof whatsoever of such a claim. That drew swift criticism from Democrats, but West stood by his comments. He once described Obama as a “low-level socialist agitator.” In a blog, West wrote, “I must confess, when I see anyone with an Obama 2012 bumper sticker, I recognize them as a threat to the gene pool.”
To his supporters, West is a straight shooter with unbending conservative beliefs.
“He tells it like it is,” said Mary Ruth Williamson, a school nurse who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “He’s patriotic and honest. With him, there is none of this misleading stuff.”
West spent 22 years in the Army, serving as a battalion commander in the Iraq war before being relieved of duty in 2003 and fined $5,000 for firing a gun near the head of an Iraqi man during an interrogation.
He retired with full benefits and moved to Florida, working first as a high school teacher and then as a civilian adviser to the Afghan army.
His 18th district is 38 percent Republican and 37 percent Democratic. Twenty-five percent of voters in his district describe themselves as independents, according to data from the Florida House of Representatives, meaning how responsive independent voters are to West will be key.
“Republicans by and large think West is fantastic, and Democrats can’t stand him,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “Saying outrageous things really fires up the conservative and Tea Party base, and it’s fantastic for fundraising, but there is a real risk you turn off independent and swing voters.”
West and Murphy will face off tonight for their first and only debate.
“I do want to make sure people know who the real Allen West is,” Murphy told Reuters before a recent campaign appearance.
A onetime Republican, Murphy said he became disillusioned with the GOP after the Iraq war began, though he didn’t officially switch parties until 2011.
“I’m not fighting against him,” West said of Murphy. “I’m fighting against the entire Democratic Party.”