In boxing, you have the prizefight at the top of the card, with a whole bunch of little battles staged beforehand just to ensure that a) the folks paying $100 a ticket feel like they're getting their money's worth and b) the audience gets its blood lust up to speed for the main event.
In politics, it works the same way.
Sure, there'll be no escaping the heavyweight battles this fall. The governor's race: Tom Gallagher vs, Charlie Crist, Jim Davis vs. Rod Smith. The U.S. Senate face-off: incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson vs. hapless comic-relief challenger Congresswoman Katherine Harris. But what about the dozens of other races, from circuit court judge to county commission to mosquito control district? Even the hardest hardcore political junkie can't track everything. So here are eight key races that should concern you, even if you don't live where you can vote for them. And since only an idiot would attempt to pick a winner this far out from the elections, I'll do just that. Here are my predictions (not preferences) on who will win:
Sharpe vs. Scott
Thomas Scott is an embarrassment among a wealth of embarrassments on the Hillsborough County Commission. He told at least one friend and supporter I spoke with that he wouldn't challenge Sharpe, then changed his mind, pulling out of a lower-paying city council race and hopping to another county commission district to avoid term limits and challenge incumbent Republican Mark Sharpe. A Democrat, he often votes the Republican line, notably on the slapdown of gay pride events engineered by his frequent ally Ronda Storms. He single-handedly derailed the redevelopment of Central Park Village housing project in downtown Tampa, grandstanding for county power in what is clearly an election year ploy but that only hurts those who want to return to a rebuilt CPV. For those with longer memories, there is that 1999 incident in which he accepted (for his church) a large donation from a businessman and then arranged meetings with Tampa General Hospital's CEO so the businessman could pitch his products. One newspaper called for his resignation in the aftermath.
Sharpe has disappointed some folks on both sides of the political spectrum, not because he is a bad guy but perhaps because he is too willing to try to please everyone. His vote against gay pride upset those who thought he might be a moderating influence on the board and did little to bolster his standing among east county conservatives, who've never accepted Sharpe as one of their own. To his credit, Sharpe's work leading a task force to refine and save Hillsborough's indigent health care program was everything that Scott's work on an affordable housing task force wasn't: comprehensive and effective.
The winner: Sharpe, in a nasty and close race.
Berfield vs. Farkas vs. Justice
This race is for a Florida Senate district that straddles Tampa Bay, swinging from South Tampa through Upper Tampa Bay and down again into St. Petersburg. Jim Sebesta is stepping down due to term limits. For voters, there ain't much to choose from. Republican House member Frank Farkas has a miserable voting record in the House; his fellow GOP legislator Kim Berfield hasn't done much to distinguish herself; and Democrat Charlie Justice has heart but has not shown solid support — yet. His new campaign manager has whipped him into better shape, and he sounds good on the stump, but this is a Republican district that will be hard to crack.
The winner: Berfield in the primary and general.
Murman vs. Storms
How do you beat someone who is bulletproof, who is solid with social conservatives and who is viewed by many of her constituents as a straight-shooter and protector of their lifestyles? Don't ask me; I lost two campaigns against Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms when I was a political consultant. Trying to beat her in the Republican primary for the District 20 Florida Senate seat (being vacated by Tom Lee) is former legislator (and former client) Sandy Murman. A recent announcement by gay activists that they are going to hound Storms only strengthens her supporters' turnout.
The winner: Storms.
Bostock vs. Russell
The Pinellas School Board incumbents do battle, pitting pro-superintendent Nancy Bostock against anti-superintendent Mary Russell. I wrote at length about this race in our May 10 issue.
The winner: Bostock overwhelmingly.
Heller vs. Mccallum vs. Capelli
Well-known USF St. Pete dean Bill Heller has jumped into this Florida House Democratic primary against Liz McCallum, who has run before but disappointed some key Democrats. A lot of questions surround Heller, who is generally beloved in St. Pete, including his stamina for campaigning and ability to raise money after getting in late. The winner faces Republican Angelo Capelli, who got a $100 contribution from Heller before Heller's entry into the race and who has the important support of Mayor Rick Baker. This is an important pick-up opportunity for Democrats, one of a handful in the state.
The winner: Heller in the primary; Capelli in the general.
Long vs. Reeder
Here's the other Pinellas Democratic pick-up opportunity in the House of Representatives. Seminole Mayor and Republican Dottie Reeder likely will take on Seminole Councilwoman and Democrat Janet Long. (Both have primaries, and Reeder's will be especially tough against Bruce Cotton.)
The winner: Long.
Hillsborough mayor referendum
Great idea. It's dead in the water. If it even makes it to the ballot.
The winner: The anti-mayoral forces.
Ferlita vs. Swanson vs. Mulhern
Probably going to be the ugliest Republican primary in town, for the Hillsborough County Commission seat being vacated by Kathy Castor. Tampa City Councilwoman Rose Ferlita (disclaimer: a former client of mine) has strong fundraising and, as a longtime drugstore owner, seems to know every single person in Tampa. Her Republican challenger Brad Swanson is banking on family values (as in, he has a family and Rose doesn't) and the strategy and money of the east Hillsborough conservative brain trust. The winner faces Democratic activist and former Planet arts critic Mary Mulhern.
The winner: Ferlita in the primary and general.
This is the way the races look right now, and I reserve the right to update as conditions on the ground change. After all, as I said, only an idiot would predict the outcomes three months out.