Just weeks ago, area Democrats salivated at the opportunity to take on Republican Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite in this fall's congressional campaign.
They sensed an unparalleled chance at unseating the three-term incumbent by riding a generally optimistic tide among Democrats and highlighting Brown-Waite's latest gaffe where she called Puerto Rico and Guam residents "foreign citizens."
But, as the field solidified after Friday's filing deadline, it appeared no party-backed Democrat will challenge her for the District 5 seat.
Three longshot Democratic candidates made the ballot: John Russell, a controversial candidate who lost big against her in 2006; Carol Castagnero, known as "Grandma" from her failed bid for governor last election; and David Werder, a perennial opponent from Hudson.
But political observers don't give any of them much of a chance. Hernando Democratic Party chairman Jay Rowden said any candidate has a shot but acknowledged that it is "hard to imagine" that one of them could win in November.
Brown-Waite's toughest contest will likely come from her own party. Republican Jim King of Land O'Lakes has already started running political advertisements against her and plans to mount a strong campaign.
The Brooksville resident comes into the race with all the advantages of incumbency, most notably campaign coffers burgeoning with $350,000 cash on hand, according to her campaign.
The money factor played a big role in Democrat Jason Melton's decision to remain on the sidelines.
"I think the main reason I stayed out of the race was the fact the incumbent has 31/2 years to amass such a huge war chest," the Brooksville attorney said.
But Melton, who helped manage a campaign against her in 2004, did see a prime opportunity this election cycle. "I think generally speaking that she hasn't done a whole lot that makes her a great congressman, especially in the district," he said.
Rowden said other potential candidates he approached couldn't stomach a tough campaign with little help expected from the state and national party organizations. Also, he said he has heard a rumor that this was Brown-Waite's last campaign. Many wanted to wait for an open seat.
Charlie Keller, Brown-Waite's spokesman, rejected that notion unequivocally, and Brown-Waite found it necessary to respond personally to what she sees as Democrats' "lack of ability to recruit a credible candidate."
"If I were going to retire, wouldn't I retire this year when my husband is very ill?" she said in a phone interview. "Poor Jay Rowden is delusional. I'm going to be around for a long time whether Jay likes it or not."
Candidates who wanted to campaign for state attorney, public defender or a judgeship also had to file paperwork by the noon deadline.
Only two seats on the bench in the 5th Judicial Circuit are being contested, all the other incumbents — including all those in Hernando County — are running unopposed, meaning they won re-election without trying.
The main race will feature three area attorneys who want to replace outgoing Circuit Judge Barbara Gurrola, who is based in Citrus County. Inverness attorney Denise Lyn, Hernando County Assistant State Attorney Michael Lamberti and Marion County Assistant State Attorney Sandy Hawkins are vying for the seat.
Inverness attorney Rhonda Portwood planned to join that race, but didn't want to face Hawkins, who narrowly lost (49 percent to 51 percent) in the 2006 election after mounting a strong campaign against a big-spending opponent.
So instead she will offer a surprise challenge to Circuit Judge Ric Howard, a prominent but sometimes controversial judge who handled the Jessica Lunsford case. Portwood said she has nothing bad to say against Howard, it was just process of elimination. She wanted to find a seat in Citrus and didn't want to run against Circuit Judge Carol Falvey because she appears in her court regularly.
For his part, Howard sounds eager to defend his record. He was appointed to the bench in 2000 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush.
"I'm not afraid at all," he said. "I look forward to it."
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.