Triumph & travesty: a primary election round-up

click to enlarge Pat Kemp. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
Pat Kemp.

Unlike spirited Democratic Party gubernatorial encounters in 2002 and 2006, there was little suspense going into this week’s primary election between Charlie Crist and Nan Rich, with the former Republican poised to easily defeat his sole challenger for his new party’s nomination.
But in the days leading up to Tuesday’s vote, GOP strategists began touting that if Crist didn’t sufficiently blow out Rich, he would already be in trouble in his mano-a-mano battle with Rick Scott come November.

“I think he’s got to get 80 percent,” said Tampa GOP consultant and columnist Chris Ingram on Florida This Week. “Because if he doesn’t have that intensity of hardcore Democrats to come out and vote for him as the primary candidate this coming Tuesday, he’s going to have a really hard time getting people who are just occasional voters, and they don’t follow politics at the level of intensity that primary voters do, [so] he’s going to have a really hard time beating Rick Scott.”

But when asked by CL on Monday what he thought about the threshold that he allegedly needed to obtain to prove “credible,” Crist shook his head dismissively.

“Fifty [percent] plus one,” he replied. “I don’t have any expectation of what the number should or should not be. I just want to be able to defeat Rick Scott and get Florida back on track.”

Crist ended up winning 74 percent of the vote; Rich finished with 26 percent.

For Rich, the former Senate Minority Leader and one “real Democrat” in the race, Tuesday night’s loss was the end of the line for her quixotic run for the governor’s mansion.

The hope now is that elements of the Democratic Party establishment (Bob Graham, Bill Nelson and Jim Davis, among others) and progressives who stood behind Rich can now all come together for a common purpose – to get behind their new standard-bearer and bring down the man they have demonized for the past four years.

“I will no longer speak out and criticize on issues that I care about,” was as far as Susan Smith would go when asked about her support for Crist. She’s the head of the Florida Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus and was a big supporter of Rich during the primaries. She says she already fears that if Crist loses in November, the progressives in the party will get the blame.

University of Central Florida Political Science Professor Aubrey Jewett believes that the early selection of a running mate in Miami-Dade County Democratic Party chair Annette Taddeo was an attempt to get the Democratic base excited about his candidacy before the primary. He says Crist needs to do two things to win in November.

“He’s gotta mobilize Democrats and get them excited about his candidacy, and he has to do what he did in 2006 (when he defeated Davis as a Republican for governor). He has to do well among the independent voters, and he did fairly well with them the first time around.”

He’s also got to defeat a slightly kinder, gentler Rick Scott who looks nothing like the man who was a Tea Partier’s wet dream back in 2010. Instead of announcing that he’s cutting education and environment funding as he did in his first years in office, he’s running around the state throwing money at those programs and others, like transportation. Last week Scott announced an increase in education spending, and his handlers were touting his proposal to increase per-pupil school funding to the highest level ever.
But the Democrats aren’t buying the 2.0 Rick Scott model.

“If Rick Scott got re-elected, he’d go back to being bad old Rick,” Crist said on Monday. And the woman who narrowly lost to Scott in 2010, Alex Sink, went further than that earlier this week, telling CL that “I don’t believe a thing he says or does ... look at how he’s changed and how all of a sudden he’s a champion of public education. That’s bullshit.”

One major concern for Team Crist going forward was the lackluster turnout in traditional Democratic strongholds of Palm Beach and Broward Counties. Crist must excel in South Florida to win in November.

In the Democratic Attorney General contest, former state legislator and DCF head George Sheldon crushed House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, but is still the decided underdog against the much better-known and financed Pam Bondi in November. But observers say that a carefully crafted campaign by Sheldon could make it a tight race.

“One of the ways an incumbent can lose is to have a little bit of a scandal, and I think she opened herself up for a couple of counts in the past year,” says UCF’s Jewett, referring specifically to Bondi’s postponing the execution of a death row inmate to host a fundraiser. “There have been a couple of other things that she can be attacked on legitimately, meaning attacks that might actually resonate with people, not the far-fetched things that politicians throw at one another.”

Sheldon brought down the house Tuesday night during his victory speech in Tallahassee by saying, “Help me give Pam Bondi the job she really wants as an anchor on Fox News.”

“The voter will have a clear choice between candidates in this election, and they deserve to hear directly from us on the distinct difference in visions and leadership that each candidate will offer to the Attorney General’s Office,” Bondi responded later, taking up Sheldon’s offer to debate (he wants five, actually).

Locally, there were a few quasi-upsets. In the most interesting Pinellas County legislative primary, the District 67 Democratic Primary race in Clearwater and Largo saw Clearwater city worker and union president Steve Sarnoff easily defeat Shawna Vercher.

Although an attractive and intelligent candidate, Vercher had a slew of baggage emanating from losing a lawsuit in Pinellas County in 2012 to former NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who charged that she had withheld proceeds from his 2009 memoir, Personal Foul. The court ruled that she owed him $1.5 million, and five months after that verdict she declared bankruptcy. Earlier this year she wrote her own memoir documenting the case, but it appeared too much of a burden to bear. (Tuesday night Donaghy tweeted to CL, “LOL...Not a chance...Vercher bites the dust #AGAIN.”)

Sarnoff now faces the heavily favored Republican Chris Latvala in November.

click to enlarge Ed Narain and his wife, Monica. - Kevin Tighe
Kevin Tighe
Ed Narain and his wife, Monica.

In Hillsborough, the sexiest race was in House District 61 (Ybor City, Seminole Heights, West Tampa, downtown Tampa), where Ed Narain and Sean Shaw battled it out, with Narain taking the contest 41-35 percent. He faces write-in candidate Nicole Santiago in November.
In the District 4 Hillsborough County Commission race, school board member Stacy White defeated the better-financed Janet Dougherty. White will now join the commission, as the Democrats do not have a candidate to run against him in the race in the fall. (Nor did they field anyone to challenge Ken Hagan in District 5).

The District 7 countywide race should be interesting, as Republican Al Higginbotham will take on Democrat Pat Kemp. Kemp destroyed Mark Nash on Tuesday night, and actually garnered more votes in the race than Higginbotham, something she says gives her momentum for the fall.

The most drama was in the school board races in Hillsborough, where no candidate in the three contests got the 50 percent plus one that they needed to avoid a run-off in November. In District 2, which encompasses South Tampa and South Hillsborough County, the heavily favored Michelle Popp Shimberg could not get to 50 percent, and will face Sally Harris in the fall. Harris got 27 percent of the vote, and progressive activist candidate Michael Weston 25 percent (Weston announced his support for Harris on Tuesday night).

In the eastern Hillsborough District 4 race, former Brandon Chamber of Commerce head Melissa Snively had the most votes, but surprisingly, conservative activist Terry Kemple came in a strong second with nearly 40 percent of the vote.

There was tension throughout the night in the countywide District 6 race. Although incumbent April Griffin took in the most votes and led the eight-person field with 27 percent, the action was for second place, where Dipa Shah, Stacy Hahn and Paula Meckley were all battling it out. In the end, Shah edged out Hahn by 655 votes, and will face Griffin in the fall.

In Pinellas County’s three contested GOP County Commission races, Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers was the winner in the crowded seven-person District 4 race, and is considered the likely successor to retiring Commissioner Susan Latvala in the northern county seat representing the most conservative part of Pinellas. He will face Democrat Mark Weinkrantz and two No Party Affiliation candidates, Marcus Harrison and Carl Folkman, in the Nov. 4 General Election.

In District 2, Clearwater-area state Representative Ed Hooper absolutely pulverized incumbent Tea Party favorite Norm Roche by a stunning 64-36 percent margin. To say that Roche endured a rocky time on the board since riding the conservative tsunami of 2010 into an upset victory over Democrat Calvin Harris would be something of an understatement. Roche was part of the majority of the Pinellas BOCC who voted to remove fluoride from the water supply in 2011, an extremely unpopular move in the county that ultimately led to the demise of two other Republican commissioners back in 2012, and now Roche this year. He also was busted by former Tampa Bay Times reporter David DeCamp at one point for writing provocative comments on the Times website under a pseudonym.

And District 6 GOP incumbent John Morroni easily defeated his Tea Party challenger, Tom Rusk, 66-34 percent. Rusk has been running radio ads blasting Morroni for not adhering to term limits in the County, but apparently that issue doesn’t have much resonance.

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