ST. PETERSBURG — In one of Florida's most closely watched primary races, first-term House member Jeff Brandes topped political veteran Jim Frishe to become the Republican candidate in Senate District 22.
The win all but assures Brandes will head to the Senate because Democrats didn't field a candidate and a write-in candidate has raised no money for the Nov. 6 general election.
"I am so excited to serve the residents of Tampa Bay," Brandes, 36, said Tuesday night. "We're going to work hard on jobs, insurance and education."
In Pinellas County, Brandes captured 57 percent of the vote to Frishe's 43. In Hillsborough County, Brandes won 55 percent of the vote compared to Frishe's 45. The district covers much of south Pinellas and South Tampa.
Money from outside groups seeking to influence the future leadership of the Senate allowed the men to dominate Tampa Bay airwaves and landscapes with increasingly negative messages.
Frishe backed state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, for Senate president in 2016. Brandes says he is neutral, but won heavy financial backing from state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who will challenge Latvala. Negron attended Brandes' victory party Tuesday night at 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House in downtown St. Petersburg.
The latest attack involved a last-minute push by Frishe to link Brandes to an idea floated earlier this spring by the Florida Department of Transportation about eventually turning the Howard Frankland Bridge into a toll road.
"Stop tolls for Howard Frankland, Stop Brandes," the signs read.
Frishe said his volunteers planted the toll signs over the past three days: "That's an interstate highway and we need to keep that toll free," he said early Tuesday. He could not be reached for comment after election results were reported.
Brandes had pledged to come up with innovative solutions to the bay area's transportation problems during his campaign, but called Frishe's ad misleading. He said he has never supported turning the whole bridge into a toll road.
Brandes does support tolling as an option for express lanes if those were ever to be added to the bridge, but said "there will always be free options for the Howard Frankland as long as I'm in the Legislature."
Other differences between the candidates: Brandes supports universal vouchers, is against taxing Internet sales and wants to aggressively privatize state functions to save money.
Brandes' win means Frishe, 63, will be out of the House after serving a total of 12 years. The real estate broker served six years in the House from 1984 to 1990 and then returned in 2006.
Frishe raised $306,630 since January 2011 and spent $243,538.
Brandes, who reported his wealth at $10 million, entered the race on June 1. He raised $205,095 and loaned his campaign $500,000. Through Aug. 9, he spent $421,239. Besides money, Brandes and Frishe both chased big-name endorsements from the region and state. Brandes snagged former Gov. Jeb Bush and Frishe landed former Gov. Bob Martinez.
Times reporter Kameel Stanley contributed to this story. Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.