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Alan Grayson: the Democrat Who Punches Back, Enraging GOP Hacks and Tea Party Billionaires

Alan Grayson is up against a Tea Party conservative. The billionaire Koch brothers, through their organization Americans for Prosperity, have dropped $250,000 in negative TV ads.

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Riding a wave of favorable national publicity from his successful battles against alleged Iraq War profiteers, and dipping into his considerable fortune, Grayson upset the favorite in the 2008 Democratic primary, Charlie Stuart, a stereotypical centrist Democrat. In the general election, Grayson used millions of his own dollars to wage a slick, negative, TV-based campaign against the Republican incumbent, Ric Keller. Grayson stuck close to generalities, apart from his opposition to the Iraq War, and attacks on Keller, a politically damaged empty suit. Thanks to Obama's coattails, he won by four points.

"He was the beneficiary of some key variables over which he had no control," says Terri Susan Fine, associate director and senior fellow at the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida.

Grayson's second stroke of luck came eleven months later, and for this one he can fairly claim some credit. On September 29, 2009, he walked onto the House floor and launched himself into the modern media firmament. For weeks the liberal base had been frustrated about how Senate Republicans had been blocking healthcare reform. Using an easel and poster boards, his voice dripping with sarcasm, Grayson advised Americans to avoid illness at all costs:

"If you get sick, America, the Republican healthcare plan is this: die quickly! That's right. The Republicans want you to die quickly if you get sick."

For many progressive Democrats, it was as if a painful boil had been lanced. The YouTube clip went viral. Finally someone in Congress was fighting back. Republicans reacted predictably. "This is an unstable man who has come unhinged," raged the NRCC. "The depths to which Alan Grayson will sink to defend his indefensible comments know no bounds."

Surprised by the intense reaction, Grayson nonetheless enjoyed the ride. Before the healthcare controversy could subside, he used his newfound platform to double down, lighting into Dick Cheney, who had been hectoring Obama on national security, charging the president with giving "aid and comfort to the enemy," the legal definition of treason. On Hardball With Chris Matthews, Grayson compared Cheney to a vampire: "I have trouble listening to what he says sometimes because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he's talking."

Interviewers loved Grayson as much for his unambiguous and unapologetic answers as for his outrageous gibes and inflammatory rhetoric. He regularly teed off against Fox News ("a lie machine") and its stalwarts Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, and he liked to point out that Nickelodeon has higher ratings than Fox. "Both run cartoons all day, but the ones on Nickelodeon are funny." He described Rush Limbaugh as a "has-been, hypocrite loser" who "actually was more lucid when he was a drug addict." He told an interviewer, "If America ever did 1 percent of what [Limbaugh] wanted us to do, then we'd all need painkillers."

Left pundits and activists admire Grayson just as much for the bold and often inventive stands he takes on policy matters. As Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, where Grayson frequently blogs, puts it, "He's a colorful character who for the most part has done an effective job of speaking for the average American who feels victimized by an entrenched political and economic establishment that seems to be run by and for the powerful." In Congress, Grayson's strategy is a mix of pragmatism and idealism. In committee hearings he has an uncanny ability, with his precise questions, to make Wall Street executives and Fed officials extremely uncomfortable. And on the House floor he sometimes assumes the mien of a stand-up comic. He backs the most liberal versions of the Obama legislative agenda until the final vote, but in the end he always supports the compromise version. Unwilling to quit, he then introduces idealistic measures, closer to his own views but with little chance of passing in that form: