NEW PORT RICHEY — Presbyterian minister Bill Gunter appears to have handily won the GOP nomination for House District 36.
Unofficial returns in Tuesday's special election show Gunter captured 63 percent of the vote. Turnout in the race, which was open only to registered Republicans, was just 10 percent.
Supported by House Speaker Will Weatherford, Rep. Richard Corcoran, Sheriff Chris Nocco, schools superintendent Kurt Browning and several lobbyists, Gunter, 43, quickly emerged as a favorite, raising about $83,000, mostly from outside the district.
James Mathieu, 60, finished second with 20 percent of the vote. Newcomer Jeromy Harding, 23, received 17 percent. Mathieu ran unsuccessfully for the seat last year against Mike Fasano, who recently vacated it to replace Tax Collector Mike Olson, who died in June.
"I'm just excited and very humbled at the same time," said Gunter, who lost a bid last year to unseat Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano.
Gunter said he decided to run after hearing church members and friends complain about property insurance, sinkhole costs and utility rates. He said he would bring industry to Pasco to create jobs. He suggested partnering with groups such as Metropolitan Ministries to help people access jobs and housing.
He favors school vouchers and standardized testing but opposes increased state funding for education, saying the private sector should play a larger role. Regarding Common Core state educational standards, Gunter has said: "We must look at it all and figure out which standards achieve the greatest outcomes for our schoolchildren."
He believes Citizens' rates should be capped and that laws governing sinkhole repairs should be overhauled to eliminate costly requirements for homeowners.
House District 36 runs west of Little Road from Hernando to Pinellas. Mathieu was the only candidate who lived in the district. Gunter would need to move to the district before the supervisor of elections certifies the Oct. 15 general election results.
He will face Democrat Amanda Murphy, 43, an investment adviser at Raymond James who was not challenged.
The race was closely watched by state Democratic officials, who issued a statement Tuesday night before the final results were reported. Democrats have targeted the district as winnable. There are 34,926 Democrats to 32,525 Republicans. Close to 21,000 people list no party affiliation on their voter cards.
"Bill Gunter is the textbook example of a politician who's bought and paid for by the wealthy Tallahassee interests," Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant said. "Only a paltry 5 percent of Bill Gunter's campaign cash came from Pasco County, and he has raised more money from outside the state of Florida than he has from people in the district he is trying to represent. Amanda Murphy will represent Pasco County as a strong and independent voice committed to creating jobs and investing in education."
Gunter called Murphy "a worthy opponent" and offered no further response.
"My desire is to serve the people of this community and continue to fight on behalf of the constituents of House District 36, which Mike Fasano did so well."