Pinellas County voters will head to the polls Tuesday to make decisions on races ranging from the statewide legislative seats to the county's top law enforcement position. Here are five things to watch on Tuesday:
Pinellas voters have a choice between two conservative law enforcement veterans in the Republican primary contest for sheriff, one of the county's most powerful elected offices. As head of Pinellas' largest law enforcement agency and overseer of the county jail, the sheriff sets policies of far-reaching impact for county residents.
Current Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a longtime narcotics detective and former labor lawyer, is facing a challenge from former Sheriff Everett Rice, who headed the agency from 1988 to 2004. Rice asserts that deputy morale has sagged under Gualtieri, who was instrumental in downsizing the Sheriff's Office when declining tax revenues in recent years forced budget cuts.
But Rice, once known as a moderate Republican, also has faced questions about his adoption of stances that appeal to the party's right-wing fringe. He refuses to acknowledge that President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen, supports controversial anti-immigration measures similar to those enacted in Arizona, and pledged his support for a bill legalizing the open carrying of firearms by those who have concealed-weapons licenses in a National Rifle Association survey.
The closely fought campaign between the two well-funded candidates has taken an intensely negative turn, with each attacking his opponent's record through direct mail, billboards or television ads.
The winner will face Democrat Scott Swope and write-in candidate Greg Pound in the Nov. 6 general election.
Senate District 22
Either a seasoned politician or a political newcomer will go home when the votes are tallied in Senate District 22, one of Florida's most competitive primary races.
Jim Frishe and Jeff Brandes, both sitting House members, are battling for the district, which covers much of south Pinellas and South Tampa.
The winner will be decided in the primary because Democrats failed to field a candidate.
Brandes, a wealthy, first-term House member, will see if the $500,000 personal loan he made to his campaign helps propel him to the Senate. Frishe, a real estate broker, served six years in the House from 1984 to 1990 and then returned in 2006.
The men have amassed sizable war chests from outside groups to flood airwaves and mailboxes. Both have knocked on thousands of doors in the district and planted campaign signs on lawns.
District 7 School Board
The race for the District 7 seat on the Pinellas School Board began almost immediately after Gov. Rick Scott filled it by appointment late last year. After the death of well-respected board member Lew Williams, Scott named Glenton Gilzean Jr., 30, who had recently moved to St. Petersburg.
Four days later, Rene Flowers, a former two-term St. Petersburg council member and a close friend of Williams, filed to run.
Like the Frishe/Brandes race, this one has the familiar theme of the establishment candidate fighting against a newcomer. Except in this case, the newcomer is the incumbent.
In their five-person race, Flowers and Gilzean are the two top fundraisers, but Flowers has more than twice as much money as Gilzean. The most recent campaign information shows that she's raised about $16,500, compared with his $7,200. Most of her contributors are from Pinellas; most of his are from outside the county.
Other candidates who have made a bid for the non-partisan seat are: Keisha Bell, a lawyer; Cassandra Jackson, a Thurgood Marshall Middle School teacher's aide; and Corey Givens Jr., a University of South Florida student.
Ever since 2002, when Florida made mail ballots available to all voters, election watchers have been wondering how popular the practice would become. By 2008, when the state did away with touch-screen machines, it was clear people were warming to the idea of sitting at home and filling out ballots at the kitchen table.
In the 2010 primary, more than 86,000 people voted by mail, accounting for more than half of all ballots cast. But they're still somewhat controversial — less so among voters than among elected officials — as some worry that the diminished number of early voting sites and the emphasis on mail voting privileges encourages certain types of voters and could lead to more fraud.
So far, voters in this primary are on track to set another record for choosing to vote by mail instead of going to the polls. As of Saturday, 88,314 had voted by mail, which is about 15 percent of the electorate. In the past, voter turnout for primaries has hovered around 25 percent.
Pinellas primaries typically draw only about a quarter of the county's roughly 600,000 eligible voters. If trends continue, most of the people who will vote already have, which has pushed candidates to start campaigning earlier and focus heavily on mailers.
Republicans have plenty of reasons to go to the polls. Outside of the hotly contested races for state Senate District 22 and Pinellas County sheriff, there's the U.S. Senate Republican primary between former U.S. Rep Dave Weldon of Indialantic and U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV of Fort Myers, and four other candidates. There are also two U.S. House races, another Florida Senate race and four state House races.
Not so much for Democrats, who have few primary races.
Outside of non-partisan races for the county's School Board and a handful of judicial elections, Pinellas Democrats are not left with much. There's a U.S. Senate race in which incumbent Bill Nelson faces minimal opposition, a state House race between two small business owners for the District 66 seat, and a quiet race for a Pinellas County Commission seat currently held by longtime Commissioner Ken Welch, who is seeking a fourth term.
Staff Writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report.