Two new political maps released last week by the Florida Senate increase the likelihood that Pasco could have a pair of marquee political races next fall. The maps would open the door for a Pasco challenger to incumbent U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Brooksville, and also pit two well-funded candidates against each other in an open state Senate contest. The proposals are the first salvo in the months-long redistricting process that occurs every 10 years after each Census. House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford cautioned that "we're kind of in the second inning of a nine-inning game" and that the boundaries are far from final. Still, the public has its first glimpse at the eagerly awaited boundaries and they could serve up some blockbusters in next year's election.
Consider Florida's 5th Congressional District.
The sprawling seat that stretched from central and east Pasco to the Villages to Levy County was the most overpopulated in the state and had to shed 233,000 people. The Senate's proposed district is much more compact, covering all of Hernando and Pasco counties, plus a small corner of Polk.
Most important, the map adds highly populated west Pasco, now in another district. If such a district becomes law, about two-thirds of its voters would live in Pasco.
"It kicks the door wide open" for a Pasco resident to run, said state Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, whose House redistricting subcommittee is set to release its own Congressional map Tuesday.
Legg said U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Brooksville, who was Hernando's sheriff for 10 years, qualified to run for the seat last year in a "unique maneuver" with former U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville. Last year, the Republican congresswoman announced her retirement only minutes after the candidate qualifying deadline passed. Many observers said that effectively prevented other credible challengers from running.
"He has not earned it yet, and now he has to go out there and earn it," Legg said.
Nugent, who has deep roots in Hernando with more than 20 years at the sheriff's office, said he is not concerned about the new map encouraging potential challengers from Pasco.
"What will be will be," he said. "I have no control over that. What you have to do is run your own race."
The congressman said including west Pasco into his district makes sense: "It really squares out the district and makes it more compact."
Hernando GOP chairman Blaise Ingoglia acknowledged that the proposed district puts Nugent at a disadvantage because it favors a Pasco County candidate. But, he said, "the bottom line is Rich Nugent is going to be very tough to beat because he's done a very good job."
What has been a reliably Republican seat since 2002 might also be slightly less so. The current district voted for John McCain in 2008 by 13 points; in the area encompassed by the proposed district, McCain would have enjoyed just a 4-point margin. Still, had the proposed district been in place in last fall's race for governor, Rick Scott would have garnered 51 percent of the vote over Alex Sink's 42 percent.
And although the GOP would lose some of its voter registration advantage, the proposed district still gives Republicans a nearly 10,000-voter edge.
So far, only Nugent and two candidates without party affiliation have filed for the seat. But if you ask local politicos who might run, speculation quickly centers on one name: state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. The 18-year lawmaker will retire from the Florida Senate next year because of term limits.
"He becomes the 100-pound gorilla," said state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey, a friend and political ally of Fasano. "He's the biggest factor in what transpires."
Fasano is coy about his political future. He only says he would like to continue to serve Pasco residents and will mull his options over the next several months.
Early this year, Fasano publicly removed himself from the Senate Redistricting Committee. He said he is "staying as far away from it as I can" to avoid any perceived conflicts.
Ingoglia, of the Hernando Republicans, declined to comment about a possible Fasano candidacy. "I'm not going to speculate about something that may or may not happen," he said.
Fasano has been more than willing to buck his party on issues like property insurance and could find favor with Democrats and independent voters.
"I think he's been a lot more independent and a lot more populist," said Hernando Democratic Party chairman Steve Zeledon. "Nugent's just been a cog in the machinery."
Times staff writer Tony Marrero and news artist Darla Cameron contributed to this report. Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.