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Hot State Race Roundup 2008

“It used to be five or six battleground districts in play each election cycle. I’m not sure you can say it’s only five or six now. There could be 20 or 25. A lot of places are going to be in play,” says Steve Schale, political director for House Victory, the arm of the Florida Democratic Party dedicated to electing Democrats to the Florida House of Representatives.

What accounts for the sudden surge in competition? Schale says the Democrats have had better luck recently in recruiting strong candidates to take on Republican incumbents, but he also suspects that voters themselves are playing a key role in the transition. “People are just moving beyond the basic rank of partisan politics that has driven politics in Florida. Voters are increasingly voting more person than party.”

With that in mind, we’ve highlighted 12 state House and Senate races most likely to be hotly contested this fall.

House District: 5 | 10 | 21 | 48 | 50 | 51 | 69 | 81 | 83 | 91 | 97

Jeff Atwater
Jeff Atwater [R]
Walter Skip Cambell
Walter “Skip” Campbell [D]
(Parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties)

Update - July 21: Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell has since dropped out of the race. Broward County realtor Linda Bird officially took his place on the Democrat ticket.

Background: If incumbent Sen. Jeff Atwater (R) wins re-election, he’ll become the next Senate president. But first he’ll have to battle former state Sen. Walter “Skip” Campbell, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who has lots of money, connections and experience. Campbell, who ran unsuccessfully for Florida Attorney General in 2006, says he plans to “take on the pay-to-play culture that corrupts our state politics and provide a voice for the people of Florida who feel too often neglected by their government.”

Democrats view the seat as a real opportunity, and Atwater is aggressively defending his seat, making this the most competitive state Senate seat. Expect to hear a lot about homeowners insurance issues in this coastal district, where Alex Sink, a Democrat, won 48% of the vote in 2006. Through the end of March, Atwater spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on television ads that highlight his fight against insurance companies that “used loopholes to skirt the law” and hiked rates, even after the state passed a bill intended to lower rates. But Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman says Atwater is part of the problem. “He's risen to power on the shoulders of the insurance industry, but suddenly he's running for re-election as a champion of the people,” Thurman said in an e-mail that blames Atwater for co-sponsoring legislation in 2006 that raised insurance rates by 71.5% for the average homeowner. Other candidates who’ve filed to run include Robert Ostrov, a Democrat from Boynton Beach, and Stanley Smilan of Lake Worth, who has no party affiliation. Ostrov has raised just $6,401 this year, and Smilan reports a loan in the amount of $1,260. By latest count, Atwater and Campbell have raised $1.7 million and $179,685, respectively.

(This sprawling Panhandle district stretches 100 miles from Marianna on the east to Fort Walton Beach on the west and includes parts of Okaloosa, Walton, Holmes, Washington and Jackson counties.)

Jackson County Sheriff John McDaniel — better known as “Johnny Mac” — is the only Democrat in the race to succeed Rep. Don Brown, who will be term-limited out at the end of the year. But McDaniel, whose wife, Mellie, was gunned down outside their home in January 2007 by two assailants with a grudge against the sheriff, faces an uphill battle in the rural district west of the Apalachicola River, which is solidly Republican. Republican candidates in the race include Sherry Campbell, an Okaloosa County commissioner and accountant, and Brad Drake, a former legislative aide to Brown. Drake leads the pack in fund raising, with $83,061 through the end of March. Campbell, meanwhile, reported receipts of $89,980 while McDaniel raised $52,680.

(This mammoth 10-county district encompasses all of Dixie, Taylor, Madison and Hamilton counties, most of Levy, Jefferson and Franklin counties and parts of Wakulla, Alachua and Columbia counties.)

Background: Campaigning is a real challenge in Florida’s 10th legislative district, the largest legislative district in the state, but four candidates are attempting to replace Democrat-turned-Republican Will Kendrick, who will be term-limited out of office at the end of the year. Julie Conley, director of the Jefferson County Economic Development Council, is one of two Democrats vying for the nomination. Conley, who was city clerk/treasurer for the city of Monticello from 1996 to 2004 and mayor from 2004-08, says she decided to run last year when the Legislature was debating property taxes issues and some criticized local governments for spending beyond their means and not rolling back their millage rates. “I was a little offended by that, because in Jefferson County and other small rural counties, we have such a small tax base, and we haven’t experienced that tremendous amount of growth, and we didn’t have a war chest full of money.” Conley, who has raised $42,004, will face Leonard Bembry, a wealthy mobile home dealer from Madison County, in the Democratic primary. Bembry had raised close to $60,000 in cash and loans through the end of March. Don Curtis, the owner of a forestry management company in Taylor County and the former assistant director of the state Division of Forestry, leads the Republican field and had raised $92,429 in contributions and loans through the end of March. Curtis will face Mike Williams, a Madison County business owner, in the GOP primary. Hot issues in the 10th district include taxes, property insurance, healthcare availability and education.

(Encompasses portions of Clay, Volusia, Lake, Marion and Bradford counties, with about 50% of the registered voters living in Putnam County.)

Background: Four candidates are campaigning for the seat being vacated by Rep. Joe Pickens (R) because of term limits. The three Republican candidates are St. Johns County prosecutor Christopher France, Putnam County resident, Patricia Freeman, a registered nurse and administrator for Palatka Health Care Center, and Charles Van Zant, a member of the Clay County School Board. Van Zant and France lead in fund raising, with $58,225 and $52,569 respectively in receipts through the end of March. Freeman had $50,520.

The sole Democrat, Linda Myers, a former Putnam County commissioner, has raised $28,620. Myers, a CPA who also owns a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise, says she expects concerns about the economy and jobs, education, insurance and affordable housing to dominate the race. She’s emphasizing the importance of rural counties having a strong voice in Tallahassee. But France recently told the St. Augustine Record that voters would have more power if he’s elected. “Right now, with the House being Republican-controlled, (Myers) would be on the back row. I don’t think anybody has anything against her. It’s just that cold, hard fact.”

(Northeast Pinellas and part of Pasco County)

Background: In 2006, Democrat Carl “Z” Zimmerman lost to Republican Peter Nehr by just 3 percentage points and 1,496 votes, setting the stage for a rematch this year. Zimmerman, who has taught high school for 23 years, says he expects a “different race” this year because it’s a presidential election year and that should boost turnout considerably. Zimmerman expects the troubled economy, the continued “property insurance mess” and the state’s “misguided” education policies to be the issues that dominate his campaign. “I’m going to talk about problems and come up with solutions,” says Zimmerman, a fiscal conservative and social moderate who was a lifelong Republican until 2003, when he became disenchanted with the party under the leadership of George W. Bush. But Zimmerman still has close ties to many prominent Republicans in the conservative 48th district, and he believes those connections could help him topple his freshman opponent. That said, Nehr, a former Tarpon Springs city commissioner and owner of the American Spirit Flag Shop, has a commanding fund-raising lead, having raised $127,841 through the end of March, compared to Zimmerman’s $26,633. Nehr made headlines in February when he tipped police off to a marijuana grow house operation he stumbled on while walking his friend’s dog. Nehr was the co-sponsor of legislation that would reduce from 100 to 25 the number of plants necessary for a suspect to be charged with distribution of marijuana.

(This Pinellas County district stretches from Dunedin to northeast St. Petersburg.)

Background: In 2006, Republican Ed Hooper, a former firefighter and Clearwater city commissioner, beat his Democratic opponent Candice Jovan, 55 to 45. This year, Democrats have found a solid candidate in Neil McMullen, a retired Methodist minister from Dunedin who is development director of the University of South Florida’s Suncoast Alzheimer’s and Gerontology Center in Tampa. According to the St. Petersburg Times, McMullen’s family has deep roots in Pinellas County. His father was a House member and a judge and his grandfather, Sen. Donald McMullen, wrote the bill that created Pinellas County in 1913. He’s got a long way to go in the fundraising department, however. As of March 31, he had only raised $525, to Hooper’s $75,808.

(This Pinellas County district includes Seminole, Pinellas Park, Largo and South Pasadena.)

Background: Republican Bruce Cotton, a job placement specialist at St. Petersburg College and a former legislative aide to Leslie Waters, is challenging incumbent Rep. Janet Long, a Democrat who was elected in 2006. Cotton lost the GOP primary in 2006 to Dottie Reeder but hopes he can recapture the seat for Republicans this time. Expect to hear a lot about insurance and property taxes in this coastal district, which has almost 8,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats but has also witnessed a surge in independent and unaffiliated voters.

(Northern half of Sarasota County and small piece of Manatee County)

Rep. Keith Fitzgerald (D), a political science professor at the New College of Florida since 1994, narrowly defeated Republican Laura Benson 51% to 49% in 2006. Benson, a businesswoman and former Sarasota County school board member, says illegal immigration is a pressing concern for Floridians and plans to address the issue of taxpayer-supported services that illegal immigrants receive. She believes the Legislature should ban “sanctuary cities” and require law enforcement officials to verify the immigration status of all arrestees and work with federal immigration authorities to deport lawbreakers. To revitalize the economy, she favors policies that encourage business development and eliminate barriers to growth for existing businesses. “We must not fall in the trap of raising taxes and fees simply because times are tough. Government should tighten its belt just like Florida’s families.” Jason Newcomb, a three-year resident of Sarasota and licensed hypnotist who was inspired to run because of Ron Paul, has also filed for the Republican primary. At the annual Kennedy-King dinner at Sarasota County Democratic Club in March, Fitzgerald ticked off the “great menu of challenges” before the country. “Our people need secure jobs, housing, healthcare. Our children need education suited for the 21st century, not the 19th. We need a tax structure that’s fair to the working and middle class. We need a foreign policy that recognizes the need to build peace as much as wage war. We need to end this foolish war in Iraq.”

But Fitzgerald says he believes the “meta” issue this year has more to do with comity and political pragmatism than specific policy issues. “People are tired of the food fights and hyper-partisanship. People are tired of extreme ideology as well. People want pragmatic approaches, people who are trying to sort through issues of substance.” And Fitzgerald believes they’ll even cross party lines to get there. “I think people will accept candidates from other parties, other than ones they are used to voting for, if they aren’t interested in in-fighting.”

This Treasure Coast district includes northern and western Martin County, including Sewall’s Point, Hutchinson Island, Jensen Beach, Rio, North Stuart, North River Shoes and Indiantown, as well as the southern half of St. Lucie County.)

Rep. Gayle Harrell’s (R) departure — the term-limited lawmaker is running for U.S. Rep. Tim Mahoney’s (D) seat — has set the stage for the most competitive open seat race in the state. While Republicans have held the seat since its creation following the 1970 Census, Democrats feel they have a real shot of making it their own. Democratic candidates include Adam Fetterman of Tequesta, general counsel to St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara and also president-elect of the Boys and Girls Club of St. Lucie County, and Bill Ramos, a Jensen Beach mortgage broker who received nearly 46% of the vote when he ran against Harrell in 2006. Running as Republicans are Martin County Commissioner Michael DiTerlizzi, Assistant State Attorney Jeff Gorman of Port St. Lucie and Dr. Slobodan “Danny” Jazarevic, a vascular surgeon and trauma medical director at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center & Heart Institute. Robert Bailey, a Port. St. Lucie energy consultant, announced he was resigning from the Republican Executive Committee of St. Lucie County to run as an independent, believing he can capture more votes that way. Prominent issues in the race will include homeowners insurance, growth, economic development, environment, education, healthcare access and taxes. At the end of March, Fetterman was the leading fund-raiser, with $77,075 in contributions. DiTerlizzi had the most of any Republican candidate — $54,050.

(Includes Palm Beach Gardens, Juno Beach, North Palm Beach, Palm Beach Shores.)

Background: In 2006, incumbent Rep. Carl Domino (R) scraped by with just 50.6% of the vote. Rick Ford, the challenger who came within 627 votes of beating him last year, is back, having put this seat on the Democrats’ radar screen. But Ford will face a tough primary opponent in Bryan Miller, a commercial litigation attorney at Gunster Yoakley. Miller, who worked on Vice President Al Gore’s staff before attending law school, has already raised $126,689 for the race to Ford’s $8,811. Domino had raised nearly $94,000 through the end of March, but the millionaire investment manager could boost his re-election bid with personal funds. John “Woody” Wodraska, the national director of water resources at engineering firm PBS&J and former director of the South Florida Water Management District, had planned to challenge Domino in the primary, but dropped out in April and threw his support behind Domino. Although Republicans have a 10-point registration advantage in the district, 26% of voters are independents or affiliated with other parties, making the race too close to call for either party but a prime one to watch.

(Coastal Broward County and a small section of Boca Raton)

Background: In 2006, Democrat Christian Chiari, a political newcomer and business consultant, took on incumbent Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R). He garnered 45.2% of the vote to Bogdanoff’s 54.8% despite being outspent 11 to 1 in the heavily Republican district. Chiari, 34, is back this year and says the “district is screaming out for an advocate on property insurance” and other issues in this coastal community. But Chiari faces an uphill battle in his bid to oust the House Majority Whip, who’s already raised close to $240,000 for her re-election. Chiari raised close to $46,000 in monetary and in-kind donations through the end of March. Bogdanoff is running unopposed in her primary. Darin Lentner, a Fort Lauderdale trial lawyer who had entered the race in 2007 when Bogdanoff was a lead negotiator in the Legislature’s controversial attempt to redo the state’s no-fault auto insurance system last year, dropped out of the race to run for city commission instead. Bogdanoff is an early supporter of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) presidential bid and currently serves as southeast legislative co-chair for his campaign.

West Broward, including parts of Cooper City, Coral Springs, Davie, Parkland, Plantation, Southwest Ranches, Sunrise and Weston)

Background: Two Republicans are vying for the chance to take on incumbent Rep. Martin Kiar, a Democrat elected in 2006. One GOP hopeful, Todd Goberville, director of sales for Pro-Frame Contracting and chairman of the Florida Federation of Young Republicans, is already getting fund-raising help from some heavy-hitters, including former Rep. Susan Goldstein, who lost her seat to Kiar in 2006. According to the Miami Herald, other Broward Republicans, including Sharon Day, Chip LaMarca and Ed Pozzuoli, are also raising money for Goberville. Rene Pazmino, student body president at Broward Community College, is also running as a Republican in the race. Homeowners insurance rates, healthcare affordability, class size, the environment and taxes are several issues expected to dominate the race.