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Pinellas Democrats don't fare well on Election Day

ST. PETERSBURG — If it was a night where voters lashed out against incumbents, only Democrats felt the pain in Pinellas County.

State representatives Bill Heller and Janet Long lost the seats they first won four years ago. County Commissioner Calvin Harris lost the office he has held since 1997. He was the first African-American elected to the board and the first commissioner to lose a re-election bid since 1992.

Meanwhile, all Republican incumbents — two members of the U.S. Congress, three state representatives, a county commissioner — won their races by wide margins.

"(Democrats) are in charge in Washington, and the reality is, most people don't know who their legislators are, or what a county commissioner does," said Ramsay McLauchlan, chair of the Democratic Party in Pinellas County. "You had all this fear mongering on the Republican side that was very effective. All of those things added to what has become a bad night for Democrats in Pinellas County and across the state."

The Harris loss was the hardest to explain.

"He had all the endorsements, he had all the money," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. "It's going to take a lot of analysis to figure this one out."

Harris lost to perennial challenger Norm Roche, a Republican who lost three past runs as a Democrat.

Roche, 48, a former county utility employee, ran a campaign "war room" from his garage in his single-story, unincorporated Clearwater home. Even as results favored him, he left behind his cell phone for dinner and a shower. Then he and family waited for the final results to display on TV.

While Roche downplayed his recent party switch, he campaigned on the same anti-tax, hawkish approach that characterized his past bids. Harris outraised Roche 6-1 and stuck to a low-key approach that focused on bringing jobs to the county.

Roche said he will quit his safety and marketing coordinator job at a geotechnical company and promised not to be a "go along to get along" commissioner.

Harris, 69, attributed his loss to a Republican strategy to tie even the most local races to voters' feelings about the president and economy.

"I am not bitter or sad," Harris said. "I won't shed a tear. I'm just sorry for the people who were avid supporters. I feel like I let them down."

Roche's win means the Republicans increased their majority on the commission to 6-to-1. The only Democrat is Welch of St. Petersburg.

In Palm Harbor, longtime Republican volunteer Sheila Waller said tea party movement members helped pass out campaign literature, walk neighborhoods and put on events to drive a conservative message.

"They really have a had a big role," Waller said. "At one time, it was the Christian Coalition, but they have pretty much taken on that."

J.J. Beyrouti, chairman of the Pinellas County Republicans, said his party is more conservative now. "And moving to the future," he said, "we're going to be more conservative."

The Republican Party's election night event at the Hilton Carillon drew 350 people. They had much to celebrate. They raised $332,000 — more than triple what the Democrats did — and opened four offices in the county.

Heller, a University of South Florida professor who was first elected to the state House in 2006, lost to a Republican political novice, Jeff Brandes, who was aided by his family's wealth.

An heir to a lumber company fortune, Brandes, 34, managed to win 52 percent of the vote by running a campaign that used $150,000 of his own money to stress the message that he would take the leadership in Tallahassee to "the woodshed" for years of overspending and mismanagement. It didn't matter that the leadership in charge of the Legislature and in the governor's office for the past 12 years is the same Republican party that Brandes belongs to.

Heller, 75, said he knew he was going to be a target this year because of his district, which covers portions of Largo, Clearwater, unincorporated Pinellas County and north St. Petersburg. Unlike other districts that skew heavily toward Democrats or Republicans, District 52 is evenly split and, therefore, up for grabs more than most.

In another split district, first-time candidate Larry Ahern defeated incumbent Janet Long to take the state house 51 seat.

Republican Ahern, 55, was a virtual unknown when he announced his candidacy against Long, 65, a Democrat. Ahern won 51 percent of the vote to Long's 44 percent.

The owner of a swimming pool remodeling business, Ahern emphasized conservatism and a business-friendly attitude. Long, who was elected in 2006, stressed her record at working with fellow House members on both sides of the aisle. Ahern also defeated Victoria Torres, a tea party candidate who lived in Orlando.

Rep. Rick Kriseman, 48, was an exception for Democrats. He won an easy victory Tuesday against political unknown Thomas Cuba. Elected in 2006, Kriseman won 58 percent of the vote — the only Pinellas Democrat victory in a partisan race.

He now finds himself as the only Democrat in the Legislature who is based solely in Pinellas. Rep. Darryl Rouson, a Democrat, beat a write-in candidate in District 55, which includes parts of Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties. Kriseman, Rouson and Sen. Arthenia Joyner, who also represents Hillsborough, are the only Democratic state lawmakers in the 12-member Pinellas delegation.

"The Republican tide was rolling very, very strongly today," said Jack Latvala, who easily won his State Senate District 16 contest against Democrat Nina Hayden.

"I've seen days like this for Republicans and days like this for Democrats. It just happens."

Times staff writers Anne Lindberg and Richard Martin contributed to this report.

Pinellas Democrats don't fare well on Election Day 11/03/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 1:21am]
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