BROOKSVILLE — After a day of recounts, Jason Sager was declared the winner in the Republican primary election in Hernando County Commission District 3, upending incumbent John Druzbick.
The unofficial final tally — 6,107 for Sager and 6,099 for Druzbick — was announced Wednesday evening.
Machine and hand recounts became necessary after Tuesday night's totals showed the two candidates tied, each with 6,097 votes. Wednesday's tallies included several provisional ballots that had been cast and not previously counted.
The tie vote was something Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams said she had never seen in Hernando County.
"This has never happened before,'' said Williams, who is retiring at the end of her current term. "Out of over 38 years in this office, this is the first time we've ever had a tie.''
Had the two candidates remained tied at the end of the recount, state law called for Druzbick and Sager to "draw lots'' to determine the winner.
As the recount got under way Wednesday, county employees and the two candidates chatted about the best game of chance to determine the winner, including a coin toss; picking a name out of a hat; rock, paper, scissors, and one suggestion for a duel.
But once the machine vote recount was finished, it seemed clear that Sager would emerge as the winner, even if his margin was small. Once the canvassing board announced the numbers, Sager's wife, Stephanie, erupted with a loud "Whoo!'' then looked around at those assembled in the Supervisor of Elections Office.
"Sorry,'' she said. "It had to be done.''
The couple embraced, relieved that their wait was almost over and that the news was good.
Because the margin remained so close, however, a hand count was necessary. During the final recount, the canvassing board looked at every over-vote and every under-vote. Those are ballots where a voter either marked multiple candidates in a race or didn't appear to vote in the race.
The hand count brought no change in the numbers, and the canvassing board declared Sager the unofficial winner.
When he learned he had bested Druzbick, Sager said, "I didn't have the words. I just wanted to hug my wife.''
He credited her for her hard work on his behalf and said he was grateful for his victory as a grassroots candidate who proved that it wasn't necessary to have power and money to win an election.
Sager's campaign focused on personal freedom, liberty and government providing only limited oversight of people's lives.
Throughout Wednesday's vote count, numerous county employees, some concerned about what that philosophy could mean for them if Sager wins his election in November, filed by the windows at the elections office with worried looks.
Druzbick, who recently voted to increase the county's property tax rate to make up for revenue shortfalls, stood outside the office for a while Wednesday morning, accepting handshakes from some of those same employees, who wished him well in the recount. He left hours before the count was announced.
Once officials contacted Druzbick to tell him that Sager was leading, he accepted the outcome, he said.
"Obviously, the public voted eight more votes for Jason Sager than for John Druzbick,'' he said. "Bottom line is that the residents of Hernando County were looking for a change.''
He said elections are always difficult, but this one seemed more so and had become personal. Druzbick said he was sorry that the dialogue wasn't more about how Sager plans to fix the county's dire financial problems.
"It was good one-liners," he said, "but no real substance on how we are going to fix this.''
Sager will face former county Commissioner Diane Rowden, a Democrat; no-party candidate Greg Sheldon, and write-in Tanya Marsh in the November general election.
Sager said he looked forward to the debate with Rowden since he and the former commissioner are, in his opinion, the very essence of conservative versus liberal.
"I've been warned by people who I know that it's going to get ugly,'' he said, stressing that he wants to keeps the race issue-based and not confrontational.
"That's not who we are,'' he said. "That's what we just proved.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.