BROOKSVILLE — As a political newcomer, Lynn Dostal has a singular goal: make state Rep. Jimmie T. Smith a one-term member of the Florida House of Representatives.
Dostal, a 70-year-old exceptional education teacher from Homosassa, is so determined to send the Inverness Republican packing that he's willing to drop out of the race if he wins the Democratic primary for State House District 34. The district includes all of Citrus County and the portion of Hernando west of the Suncoast Parkway and north of State Road 50.
Dropping out sounds like an unorthodox strategy, but stepping aside might be necessary now that the ballot features a well-known former senator and another Democrat at the center of a conspiracy theory, Dostal says.
"The stronger horse is going to have to pull the wagon," he said.
That stronger horse, he said, is probably Nancy Argenziano, who represented Citrus County in the state Senate and later made headlines as an outspoken member of the Public Services Commission. A former Republican who is now running as an independent, Argenziano jumped into the race in March. Dostal announced shortly after that he was suspending his campaign because he supports Argenziano and her populist bent.
"She is a person of integrity who fights for the people of her jurisdiction," Dostal said.
When Argenziano filed, Dostal was the only Democrat in the race, which means he would have gone straight to the general election ballot along her and Smith, who has no Republican opponent. A Democrat would surely pull votes from Argenziano, Dostal says. Better to let her fight Smith one-on-one.
Then a 24-year-old auto repair technician from Homosassa named Robert Goocher filed to run for the seat. A political newcomer, Goocher was an unknown to local Democratic party officials. Dostal and other Democrats soon began to suspect that Goocher was a plant by Smith supporters who seek to blunt the threat that Argenziano poses.
The theory: When Dostal announced in April that he was suspending his campaign, Smith supporters decided to make sure a Democrat is on the ballot to pull votes from Argenziano.
"He would be a spoiler, or try to be a spoiler," Dostal said.
Goocher has not returned numerous messages left by the Tampa Bay Times in the weeks since he filed to run.
His failure to return reporters' calls, Dostal and other Democrats say, is just one of several facts that raise suspicions.
Though completely unknown, Goocher has not reached out to Democratic officials in Hernando or Citrus counties. He's not a member of any groups or clubs and has not attended any meetings, said Roz Odell, chairwoman of the Citrus County Democratic Executive Committee. Odell said she'd heard the theory that Goocher was a plant but wouldn't comment on it.
Steve Zeledon, chairman of the Hernando DEC, is openly skeptical of Goocher's campaign.
"The fact he hasn't contacted me and hasn't been willing to approach the Democrats here in Hernando County leads me to suspect he's not a full fledged candidate," Zeledon said.
According to his Facebook page, Goocher is single, a Spring Hill native and a 2005 graduate of Lecanto High School. He has been a registered Democrat since 2006 and turned 19 in February of that year, but he has not voted once since then, records show.
On financial disclosure forms filed with the state, Goocher lists his net worth at $3,000 and his 1993 GMC Sierra truck as his only asset. He listed no debt. As a technician at Bob's Car Care, his father's business in Inverness, Goocher earned $19,200 last year. To qualify for the race, he paid $1,781.82.
Goocher told the Citrus County Chronicle that no one helped him with the fee.
"I'm a strong Democrat and I'm looking for change," Goocher told the Chronicle. "I just figured I'd like to give it a shot."
Michele Klemm, chairwoman of the Citrus County Republican Executive Committee, dismissed the notion that Goocher is a plant.
"My party wouldn't do that, and my candidate wouldn't do that," she said. "(Smith) has done nothing but the right thing and we're extremely proud of him in our county."
Klemm said many voters will be put off my Argenziano's decision to switch parties.
Assuming Goocher is a bona fide Democrat, Dostal says he has more experience. A native of Cleveland, Dostal served in the Army and has a master's of business administration from Cleveland State University. He has worked as a human resources supervisor for several firms, and later started a human resources consulting business. He is now in his second year as a teacher at Gulf Coast Academy, a charter school in Spring Hill.
Initially, Dostal said he would drop out if he won the race, assuming Argenziano would be the stronger candidate. Now he says he wants to wait and see what polling numbers show.
Argenziano said that her friends in the state Legislature warned her after Dostal suspended his campaign that there "was going to be a Republican shill put in who's a Democrat."
"I don't know if that's Mr. Goocher or not, but I find it highly suspect he came in at the last minute and found the resources to qualify," she said.
She said she appreciates Dostal's support and his willingness to step aside to achieve their common goal of defeating Smith. Both have criticized Smith's push to force welfare recipients and state employees to undergo drug tests, and his support for privatizing state prisons.
"People are elected from different districts, but half of them go up there and blindly follow (party leaders)," Argenziano said. "Jimmie is one of those followers."
Smith defended his record and said he doesn't believe the premise of the conspiracy theory because he has plenty of support from Democrats.
"I've worked really hard to build those bridges," he said.
Smith was elected in 2010 to what was then House District 43, which contained a sliver of central Hernando County.
As a result of the recently completed redistricting process, what is now heavily Republican District 34 has a larger portion of Hernando County, with nearly 16,000 total Hernando residents.
Argenziano moved to Tallahassee in 2007 after then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed her to the Public Services Commission. She garnered statewide attention in that role, voting in 2010 against the two largest utility rate increases in state history.
She was commission chairwoman when she abruptly resigned in 2010 and endorsed Democrat Alex Sink in the governor's race, saying she had to speak out to prevent the "noxious mix" of a Republican-led Legislature and GOP candidate Rick Scott.
Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Hernando Republican executive committee and vice-chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said Thursday that he hadn't heard the theory about Goocher. In a head to head matchup, Ingoglia said, Smith has the edge because of his popularity and voter demographics.
"I would say it would be very difficult for Argenziano to win that race," Ingoglia said.
Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.