March column: Two local views on Democrats’ big Sarasota win

Tampa Bay Times Correspondent William March
Tampa Bay Times Correspondent William March
Published February 16 2018

Democrats are exultant over Margaret Good’s defeat of James Buchanan in the District 72 state House special election in Sarasota. They think their win in a GOP-leaning district with a large plurality of Republican voters forecasts a blue wave in 2018.

Republicans say a special election, heavily influenced by unusual turnout efforts, can’t be compared to a general election.

So what does D72 mean for the numerous first-time, mostly female candidates challenging established Republicans incumbents in Hillsborough County commission and legislative seats?

Local Democratic Party Chair Ione Townsend and James Waurishuk, candidate for chairman of the local GOP, offered their views via email, condensed here.

• Townsend: "I believe we will continue to see D72-like results. The Democratic base is more energized than the Republican base and women are getting engaged in the political process … Our county party membership is approaching 300. More joining each month.

"Trump is the gift that keeps on giving and inspiring. He gave us The Women’s March, #Metoo, and activist groups such as Surely Feminists and Action Together. This past election taught people voting counts and matters.

"Women are raising their voices by activism, voting, running for office. Anti-women policies in Washington and Tallahassee are motivating factors."

• Waurishuk: "A lot of resources -- money, people, surrogates, and time — were dumped into that local area (by Democrats) because it was the sole race going on at the time … This was a local race elevated to national attention. … That will not necessarily be the case in November."

In addition, D72 is "a district that has been won by Democrats in the past, both in 2006 and 2008 (by Keith Fitzgerald).

"With that said, it does reinforce the need to ensure that our local parties have the strongest foundation possible, resources and necessary tools in place."

Waurishuk’s opponent for party chairman, April Schiff, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Smith-Nash primary heats up

With January fundraising reports out this week, Mark Nash, a veteran party activist and fundraiser, remains the leader in the county commission District 5 Democratic primary with $51,378.

But his leading opponent, Mariella Smith, posted a strong first month after filing in January with $39,823. Nash has been in the race since October.

A candidate’s initial fundraising report is when the easiest contributions come in — the "low-hanging fruit" from family and close friends.

But the reports also indicate that some prominent Dems who previously contributed to Nash before Smith filed have now contributed to Smith or were on the host committee for her kickoff fundraiser, including Erin Aebel, Judi Breuggeman, Rick Fernandez, Peggy Land, Tom Scarritt and James Shirk.

Does that mean Dems are switching over?

"The dust will settle in the months to come on that," said Nash, noting his own party credentials. He was county party membership chairman during the local group’s recent reinvigoration and has employed consultant Tom Alte, who handled Andrew Warren’s successful state attorney race.

Meanwhile, because Nash has spent more than $12,000, Smith’s total brings her almost equal in cash on hand.

The primary winner is likely to face GOP incumbent Victor Crist, who still hasn’t kicked his campaign into high gear. He pulled in six contributions of the maximum $1,000 each in January. Crist acknowledges he’s starting slow because of his father’s terminal illness, but still leads the field in total raised at $76.905.

More fundraising highlights

A candidate’s first campaign finance report is important because early money establishes momentum. Here are first-month totals for some other local candidates who filed at the start of the year:

• In the District 1 county commission race, Republican Todd Marks scored an impressive $50,125 — roughly equal to what his GOP primary opponent, Aakash Patel, raised in his first month, June 2017. Patel has raised $268,715 in all but continues spending heavily; he has about $146,100 in cash. Democrat Janet Cruz, a state House member prohibited from fundraising during the legislative session, which started Jan. 8, took in only $2,100 in January but has $61,801 overall.

• Democrat Debra Bellanti pulled in $12,285 in the first month of her challenge to District 60 Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, who has raised $107,675.

• Democrat Heather Kenyon Stahl starts with $8,425 in her challenge to state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, who has raised $102,600.

Toledo and Grant are also shut down for fundraising during the session.

Contact William March at [email protected]

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