BROOKSVILLE — Jason Sager says he figured the attacks would come at some point.
"I expected that," he said Tuesday as he sat in the cramped back room of his campaign headquarters in Brooksville. "I'm the outside guy."
Sager, an audio visual technician from Brooksville who affiliates himself with the tea party, filed last fall to challenge U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite in the Republican primary for the District 5 seat she has held for four terms. Then Brown-Waite bowed out due to health concerns and quietly asked Hernando Sheriff Rich Nugent to run in her place.
As voters head to the polls for the first week of early voting, Nugent's campaign has been lobbing news releases questioning Sager's past involvement with a controversial protest group, his loyalty to the GOP, even his voting record.
"This is truly the sign of a desperate campaign," Sager said.
"These are requests for clarification," Nugent responded. "People deserve to know, particularly on the voting record."
Last week, Nugent's camp sent a release headlined "Sager Abandons Republican Party."
"While he is running in the Republican primary, one would never know it," the release reads. "He has described himself as a 'Nurepublican' and a '9/12er' but never as an actual Republican. … He has even advertised that the platform of the Republican Party no longer represents his beliefs."
The Nugent camp fired off another release asserting that Sager, during a candidate forum at Wesleyan Village in Brooksville, said if he lost in the primary he might support Democrat Jim Piccillo in the general election.
"This, coupled with his previous statements, is making it fairly clear that Jason Sager's party allegiance lies with the party of 'Me,'?" the release said.
In a video from the forum posted on Nugent's YouTube channel, a male questioner off camera asks if Sager would support Nugent should he win the primary.
"I cannot," Sager says as Piccillo sits next to him.
"Would you vote for Jim Piccillo?" the questioner asks.
"I would have to see how that general (election) went down," Sager replies.
On Tuesday, Sager explained his response.
"I am someone that is trying to win a general election, and out of respect for the Democrats in the audience, I played it safe," he said. "I said I'll make that determination later, but I have never in my life voted for a Democrat, and never plan on voting for one. I was trying to be classy and act as a statesman."
He said he is a dedicated member of the Republican Party, but acknowledged he doesn't hesitate to criticize his party when it's due. He said he would only reluctantly vote for Nugent.
"I cannot simply endorse somebody because of their political party, but I would not work against him," he said. "As a Republican, if I am not in the race, I will go in the voting booth and vote for the lesser of two evils, and that lesser evil will be Richard B. Nugent.''
Nugent said Tuesday that he has sent letters to Republican Executive Committee leaders in the district asking them to contact Sager and urge him not to support Piccillo.
"I've said at a forum in Pasco, without being asked, that if Jason were to win I would endorse him because it's the right thing to do," Nugent said.
Hernando REC chairman Blaise Ingoglia said he has seen the Wesleyan video.
"All primary candidates need to understand that while primary elections sometimes get heated because both sides are passionate about their candidates, Republicans need to come together as one cohesive unit after the primary to make sure that Republicans get elected, especially in this congressional race," Ingoglia said in an e-mail to the Times on Tuesday.
Sager says he now has other reservations about Nugent.
"How can I endorse somebody who is spreading lies throughout the community and putting my family in jeopardy by trying to brand me as a racist?" he said.
Over the weekend, the Nugent campaign sent a release questioning Sager's involvement with the group Protest Warriors.
The release included two posters pulled from the group's website that bore the type of slogans that use the strategy of picking a liberal stance and making an absurd slogan to mock it.
One of signs reads: "Reparations to blacks! We already take half of people's money and redistribute it by force. What's the big deal?"
The other: "Black children belong in black schools. Say no to vouchers!"
"I am asking my opponent to come clean with the voters about his involvement with this shady organization," Nugent said in the release.
Sager, a Brooksville native, says he was a member of the group in 2003 when he lived with his wife in New York City, but had never seen the signs in Nugent's news release. He condemned the messages.
"The Nugent campaign is doing some very crafty things to associate me with things I've never been associated with," he said.
He said he joined the Protest Warriors at about the same time he joined another called Communists For Kerry. Members would dress up as communist historical figures and attend protests and rallies of progressive groups. The goal wasn't to stage overt counterprotests, Sager said. Rather, the group infiltrated the ranks of protestors with signs supporting communist ideals. The purpose, Sager said, was to educate by mocking liberal stances.
Sager donned a green uniform and black beret and, with his beard and long brown locks, achieved the look he was going for: Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
Nugent defends his campaign's decision to press Sager to provide that explanation. "It's unfortunate that he would be involved with groups that would have those types of posters," he said. "Like I tell my kids, you are who you hang with."
On Tuesday, Nugent's campaign sent a release saying Sager didn't register to vote in Florida until 2008 even though he moved back from New York in 2005.
As such an outspoken activist, Nugent said, Sager should have gone to the polls. "His rhetoric doesn't match his record," he said.
Sager moved from New York to Hillsborough County in 2005. He says he remembers registering and voting in that county in 2006, but Hillsborough elections officials said they don't have a record of Sager registering or voting. Voting records can be inaccurate, though, and a Hillsborough REC official confirmed that Sager was a member of the group in 2006.
Records from New York state show Sager voted in 2004. Hernando records show he voted once in Hernando County in 2008, and Sager says he recalls voting for Republican presidential nominee John McCain that year.
"I cannot believe it has come down to this," he said. "This is beyond stupid. I want to talk about issues and how we're going to fix this country, and all my opponent wants to talk about is whether I voted in 2006."
Sager said he was incensed to hear from a supporter who received a mailer from Nugent's campaign that claimed Sager would eliminate Social Security sooner rather than later at the expense of beneficiaries who have already paid into the system.
Sager countered with a news release calling the mailer "dishonorable" and clarified that he supports a plan that would phase out the program over three generations so those who have paid into the system would be sure to receive their benefits.
"He's just using scare tactics, which is absolutely deplorable," Sager said of Nugent.
On Tuesday, though, his camp issued a release with a headline, "The Immature Tactics of the Opposition."
The release said that several of Sager's campaign signs have been disappearing throughout the district, including a 4-foot by 4-foot placard that had been planted in front of a chiropractor's office in Brooksville. In at least one place in Citrus County, the release said, Sager signs were replaced with Nugent signs.
Nugent said he doesn't condone sign stealing and his own signs have been stolen in this race and in past races. His agency arrested Brown-Waite's husband, Harvey Waite, in 2002 for taking down her opponent's signs.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.