18 races to watch in 2018

Will the Trump effect work in the Dems’ favor? They sure hope so.

click to enlarge THE MOUTH THAT ROARED: Dems are hoping the president’s popularity (or lack thereof) will have an impact in Florida. - Joeff Davis
Joeff Davis
THE MOUTH THAT ROARED: Dems are hoping the president’s popularity (or lack thereof) will have an impact in Florida.

When it comes to politics (and pretty much anything else), the Sunshine State is an odd bird.

It’s been almost a year since...well, you know.

From the look of it, political passions have yet to die down — on either side, really, though Democrats are optimistic that they’re due a blue wave rivaling the 2010 tea party takedown, and they largely think this because of one President Donald J. Trump. Some see Trumpism as a major factor in the outcomes of the St. Pete mayor’s race and the Alabama U.S. Senate race (even if Democrats didn’t do so well in a few special elections in safe GOP districts earlier in the year).

It’s impossible to tell what effect, if any, the national climate will have in Florida. Because when it comes to politics (and pretty much anything else), the Sunshine State is an odd bird. Political leadership here tends not to reflect the state’s political makeup, given how the most important elections happen in non-presidential years, when Democrats tend not to show up at the polls. Plus, gerrymandering has skewed congressional and legislative maps in favor of Republicans. Oh, and voter suppression. There’s that.

So we thought we’d take a look at some of the more interesting races coming up in the next year or so, mostly local ones that may not be as predictable as they were in the last few election cycles.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Note that the previously-a-toss-up Congressional District 13 seat isn’t on here, because U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist seems pretty safe. If Trump-loving singer Joy Villa (or as we call her, Lady MAGA; you’re welcome) gets in as she’s rumored to be considering doing, that’ll be a race to watch (but not because we think she could win).

But going into 2018, here are the races on which we are keeping a trained eye.

Florida State House District 72 Special Election. You might have the preconceived notion that a Democrat could never win in Sarasota, especially against a moneyed Republican (James Buchanan) who’s the son of a moneyed Republican Congressman (one Vern Buchanan). So did we. Dem Margaret Good has just more than half the money of her major opponent, but her party appears to be backing her more energetically than they normally would in a Sarasota-area special against a Republican with such a well-known last name. That race comes to a head on Feb. 13, and much as some viewed the Alabama Senate race, it could be a bellwether.

Pinellas County Commission Dist. 2. Unless they, say, vote to remove fluoride from the county drinking water, incumbent Pinellas County Commissioners tend to have an easy time being re-elected, and incumbent Commissioner Pat Gerard, a Democrat, hasn’t been exactly controversial. But Republican Doreen Caudell, a Clearwater city councilwoman, appears to have strong Republican supporters and, again, it’s an off-year election, which tends to benefit Republicans up and down the ballot.

click to enlarge POPCORN-WORTHY: State Rep. Kathleen Peters (R) will compete in a competitive GOP primary for the Pinellas County Commission District 6 race. - Florida House of Representatives
Florida House of Representatives
POPCORN-WORTHY: State Rep. Kathleen Peters (R) will compete in a competitive GOP primary for the Pinellas County Commission District 6 race.

Pinellas County Commission Dist. 6. There’s no announced Democrat in the race for this seat representing northeast St. Pete, Seminole and the beaches, but the GOP primary between current State Reps. Larry Ahern and Kathleen Peters as well as tea party activist Barb Haselden should be pretty popcorn-worthy, given how wildly the candidates differ. Ahern was an early Trump supporter, Haselden helped block Greenlight Pinellas in 2014, and Peters says she wants to challenge the state legislature’s constant attempts to wrest power from local lawmakers.

Hillsborough County Commission Dist. 2. The Republican primary between longtime Commissioner Ken Hagan and newcomer challenger Chris Paradies will be about two things: Paradies exploiting Hagan and other commissioners’ use of a “loophole” that allows them to stay on the Commission indefinitely despite term limits and — ugh — the Tampa Bay Rays stadium saga. Hagan has already raised roughly 26 times as much money ($459,074 as his primary opponent. The winner (okay, probably Hagan) faces Dem activist and first-time candidate Angela Birdsong (whose campaign logo really needs to incorporate a cute birdie if she wants to win).

Hillsborough County Commission Dist. 5. Democrats Mark Nash and Mariella Smith — not exactly a first-time candidate — faces incumbent Commissioner Victor Crist, a Republican (assuming he wins the GOP primary against lesser-known, lesser-monied challengers). Two words: Confederate monument.

State House Dist. 66. Apparently the Dems don’t see much of a shot with this Seminole/north Pinellas Beaches/parts of Clearwater seat. There’s actually a Reform Party candidate in the race (that’s the party Ross Perot founded), Paul Anthony Bachmann. He wants to focus on disability issues and he has a great ’stache. The two Republicans set to face off in a primary are young attorney Berny Jacques, the son of Haitian political refugees, and Nick DiCeglie, chair of the Pinellas County Republican Executive Committee (in other words, his list of supporters is kind of a Pinellas GOP who’s who, so, you know...).

State House Dist. 60. We hear that Democrats may forge a challenge against Republican incumbent Jackie Toledo, who won this South Tampa seat in 2016. This is one of those districts in which tying a GOP incumbent to ol’ Trump might work better than others. Toledo also sponsored anti-choice legislation in the State House that would protect millions in state funding for an organization that uses Christianity to dissuade women from having abortions. This might not be a good year to be sponsoring legislation pertaining to wedge issues, FYI.

State House Dist. 69. For such a beachy (white) district, this seat is pretty swingy. Democrat Jennifer Webb amped up her name recognition in 2016 by challenging Rep. Kathleen Peters (who’s terming out and running for Pinellas County Commission). The lesser-known Republicans are lawyer Jeremy Bailie and Raymond Blacklidge, the latter of whom has the most money by far. Webb can probably eke out an edge with messaging about climate change and, yes, anti-Trumpsim. She’s got tons of support from area Dems, too.

State House Dist. 63. State Rep. Shawn Harrison doesn’t officially have a challenger yet in his bid to hang onto this north Tampa seat. If he does get a serious one, it’s a sign that Dems are actually confident and are maybe going to do okay with this whole candidate recruitment thing after all.

State Senate Dist. 16. Then-Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Florida) was terming out and running for governor anyway, but because he’s vacating his seat (sexual misconduct accusations and whatnot), that means the race is a special election, though as of deadline the governor had yet to set a date. It’s a north Pinellas seat for which GOP favorite Ed Hooper began running forever ago, so we doubt the Dems are really going to sink a bunch of cash into that race. There is a Democrat, Bernie Fensterwald, already in the running as well. It’s his second run, and the pro-environment and anti-GOP-establishment message he had during his 2016 House bid against State Rep. Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) may work. But we’d be naive to say he’s not up against some brutal odds.

State Senate Dist. 24. Florida Senate District Jeff Brandes’s seat lies largely within St. Petersburg, a progressive city, but the Republican incumbent hasn’t attracted a Dem opponent since 2014. He’s got loads of money, is an incumbent, and seems pretty well-liked in the district (a bit of an independent streak as a lawmaker doesn’t hurt). If a Democrat does jump in, the race would become a bit of a litmus — not for the effectiveness of anti-Trump messaging in a potentially swingable district, but of Democrats’ ability to recruit the right candidates for the right races (and, yes, use the right messaging and not a blanket Trump hammering issued from on high because it worked in race X).

State Senate Dist. 18. Sure, State Sen. Dana Young (R-Tampa) doesn’t officially have an opponent (c’mon, it’s still a little early...but time’s a-wastin’), but this new district is pretty swingable. Young has been sponsoring legislation uncharacteristic of a stereotypical Republican (a fracking ban, a bill that would end greyhound racing in Florida, etc.), which could deflect the Trump lobs that may come her way. Bob Buesing, her Democratic opponent in 2016, might be feeling lucky again as well, but, as we said, it’s a non-presidential year, which is bad for Dems. Maybe they can get Kevin Beckner to run.

U.S. Congressional Dist. 12. Early on in 2017, activists with Indivisible and other groups flooded a town hall that Republican Congressman Gus Bilirakis hosted in order to confront him about a possible Obamacare repeal and other issues. It didn’t make Bilirakis look particularly good. Now, three Democrats (Steve Perenich, Robert Tager and Sunil Thomas) and an NA (Angelika Purkis) are challenging him for this north Pinellas/Pasco seat. You better believe that whoever gets out of that Democratic primary alive will put healthcare front and center.

Felon rights restoration amendment. Obviously, if this passes, it will diminish Republican efforts to minimize voter turnout among some populations by simply removing them from the voter rolls because of one bad (however nonviolent) decision. Expect Sheldon Adelson types to come after this hard, just like they did with medical marijuana in 2014 (this is why we can’t have nice things). Expect it to get defeated and come back in 2020.

Florida attorney general’s race. In which you will see mailers featuring current Attorney General Pam Bondi and her pal, one Donald J. Trump, presumably photoshopped next to an image of the Republican nominee, whether it’s Jay Fant (State Rep. from Jacksonville), Ashley Moody (former Hillsborough Circuit Judge), State Rep. Ross Spano (R-Dover) or State Rep. Frank White (R-Pensacola). There’s only one announced Dem thus far, Tampa lawyer Ryan Torrens, though the list of other possible Dem contenders includes State Rep. Sean Shaw (D-Tampa) and former State Senator/candidate for governor Rod Smith.

Florida governor’s race. We are having a hard time deciding whether either/both parties will line up behind the establishment candidate (Gwen Graham for the Ds, Adam Putnam for the Rs), or if it’ll get weird with help from a far-right candidate like House Speaker Richard Corcoran or Congressman Ron DeSantis, or from the left with a John Morgan-like character (even if he’s running as an indie, thereby probably splitting the vote). One thing’s for sure: we know more than one person who has been keeping count of the days till Rick Scott exits the People’s House of Florida for good.

U.S. Senate race. Up until very recently, the assumption was that longtime U.S. Senator from Florida Bill Nelson was a bit vulnerable — not super vulnerable, but vulnerable enough, namely in polls pitting him against Rick Scott. And Scott was acting like a moderate — so much so he feigned pro-environment positions. But now, with the Alabama election results behind us and Trump’s popularity taking a nosedive, there’s a possibility Scott won’t run. His Let’s Get to Work PAC has been raising money this whole time (and he of course has gobs of his own money), so he has a bit of time to read the tea leaves.

Tampa mayor’s race. This isn’t until early 2019, but, people have been wondering who Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s successor will be since probably his first term. Will Ed Turanchik jump in? What about Councilman Mike Suarez? Former Police Chief Jane Castor? Our guess is that it will be a super-crowded primary just like it was in 2011, and the runoff will consist of two seasoned Dems.

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