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William March: Even local GOP sees Democrats’ new energy, but candidates still lacking

By William March, Times Correspondent
Hillsborough County Democrats have signed up more party activists because of dissatisfaction over the presidency of Donald Trump. Trump narrowly won Florida but Hillary Clinton took Hillsborough by seven points. [New York Times]

As 2017 ended, Hillsborough County Democrats were energized and optimistic that big wins are coming, and Republicans were worried.

But so far, thereís not much tangible evidence either way.

Will the anti-Trump backlash produce a "blue wave" of Democratic candidates, votes and wins in 2018?

So far, itís mostly speculation, based on elections in other counties or other states, demonstrations at town hall meetings and social media buzz.

"Florida is just not predictable," said University of South Florida political analyst Susan MacManus.

The beginning of the year saw Democrats in shock over Donald Trumpís election, but local Republicans also saw a problem.

Hillary Clinton had won the county by seven points, even while Trump narrowly won the state ó the first time in decades the county had voted against a Republican winner.

Demographic changes are turning Hillsborough blue, said MacManus, whoís politically neutral.

"Younger voters are becoming a bigger part of the electorate, along with more Hispanics, particularly Puerto Ricans, moving in," and urbanization is accelerating the trend, she said.

As Trump took office, signs of a grassroots backlash began to appear locally and nationwide.

Republican congress members became reluctant to hold town hall meetings in Tampa as Democrats crowded in, asking hostile questions about Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Individuals who hadnít been involved in politics started joining online groups linked to the Indivisible movement, a grassroots lobbying effort opposing Trump and repeal of the Affordable Care Act.

Downtown lawyer Erin Aebel, who formerly only made campaign contributions, formed a group named Surly Feminists for the Revolution, calling Trumpís election "a slap in the face."

Melissa Gallagher, an apolitical Tampa working mother, formed an Indivisible-linked Facebook group, then used it to organize a "town hall meeting" for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in his absence, emphasizing his refusal to hold one.

Others got involved in the Democratic Party.

County Chairman Ione Townsend boasts 270 precinct representatives, up from 134 last year, even though the numbers usually drop after presidential elections, and has unprecedented attendance at party meetings.

County Republicans, meanwhile, dropped from around 250 to about 190 now, said Chairman Deborah Tamargo, and are having some of the same kinds of divisiveness problems that used to plague Democrats.

Democrats were energized this summer when the GOP county commission majority, reluctant to anger their conservative base, couldnít decide how to respond to demands to remove a Confederate monument at the county office building.

They awkwardly reversed themselves when prominent Democratic lawyer Tom Scarritt raised money to pay for its removal, giving Democrats a public relations victory.

Democrats rode another wave of elation in November when St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, unexpectedly held off a challenge from Republican former mayor Rick Baker.

Itís a non-partisan office across the bay, but both Hillsborough parties got involved. Tampa Democrats did fundraising and phone banking for Kriseman.

"I think itís real," MacManus said of the Democratic resurgence. "A big proof is the energy and numbers of new people showing up at county party meetings."

Even Republican stalwarts are worried.

East Hillsborough conservative Sam Rashid, an influential force in county elections, said heís not sure Republicans can win a countywide commissionerís race next year.

"Thereís going to be a Democratic turnout thatís energized," he said. "A countywide race is going to be a nightmare. Look at what happened in Alabama," where Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore in what should have been an easy GOP win.

But will that energy translate into candidates challenging incumbent Republicans with a chance of success?

On that, MacManus demurred.

"This is a mid-term," she said, less advantageous for Democrats than presidential years. "If things get better for Trump, putting all your eggs in the anti-Trump basket wonít work."

So far, concrete signs are few.

Of the three Republican congressmen representing Hillsborough ó Gus Bilirakis, Vern Buchanan and Dennis Ross ó none appears threatened by any of the several Democrats filed against them.

Democrats have high hopes that term-limited state Rep. Janet Cruz will nab the District 1 county commission seat Commissioner Sandy Murman plans to vacate in 2018, boosting their commission minority from 2-5 to 3-4.

Murman plans to resign to run for a countywide seat.

But so far, the Democrats challenging her and three other GOP incumbents ó Victor Crist, Ken Hagan and Stacy White ó look like underdogs.

Democrats hope for strong challenges to three Tampa Republican state legislators ó Sen. Dana Young and Reps. Shawn Harrison and Jackie Toledo.

Bob Buesing, who lost to Young last year, probably will run again, but Democrats have sought an alternative, and so far, no one has filed against Harrison or Toledo.

Half a dozen other local GOP legislators in less-vulnerable districts have no Democratic challengers or comparative unknowns.

A wave of candidate announcements is likely after Jan. 1.