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Democrats smell blood in House District 44

Republican state Rep. Rob Schenck just finished his first term in Tallahassee. But there's no time for him to relax.

The first re-election campaign is often the toughest, and this year, local Democrats are poised to mount an aggressive challenge.

Florida Democratic Party officials believe Schenck's district is one of the most vulnerable Republican-held seats in the state. And now they have a candidate to trumpet.

This week, Joseph Puglia, a 41-year-old business owner from Brooksville, filed paperwork noting his intent to run. He is supported by local party chairman Jay Rowden and the state party, which is lending staff support and financial muscle.

"I think it's an interesting district," said Steven Schale, the political director for the House Democratic Caucus in Tallahassee. "Some of the trend lines give me the idea that we may have a better chance now than we did before."

The enthusiasm among Democrats is prompted, in part, by the party's national energy. But a Democratic victory in this district, covering Hernando County and parts of Pasco and Sumter counties, would prove doubly tough.

Republicans outnumber their rivals and the GOP has solidly controlled this seat for more than a decade. Democrats hold hope, however, because of the 2006 election results. Schenck won by 1,019 votes, or less than 2 percent.

"In terms of district performance numbers, this is one of the better ones in the state," Schale said.

He doesn't rank target seats held by the GOP but Schale puts District 44 in the top five most vulnerable.

Even Florida Republican officials can't deny the math from 2006. They list it as one of 10 battleground seats, according to an internal political memorandum.

But Chip Case, who manages the GOP House races for the party, said he conducted a recent poll that showed Schenck has favorable name recognition in the district. "That's a pretty good-performing seat for us," he said.

Schenck, of Spring Hill, said his campaign is already sending out mailers and he is adding to the $95,000 already in his campaign coffers.

He plans to tout his record cutting taxes, specifically his involvement in the legislature's property tax reform efforts. "I had a big role and big hand in crafting those ideas," said Schenck, who is vice chairman of the Committee on State Affairs.

He also guided a bill to Gov. Charlie Crist's desk cracking down on exploitative teen modeling agencies and fought unsuccessfully to restrict state employees from double-dipping.

Two Democrats must face off in primary

Before Democrats can ponder the November campaign, they must first battle within the party.

Puglia will face Aaron Whitaker, a 32-year-old Hernando County School District employee, in the Aug. 26 Democratic primary election.

Whitaker called himself the "dark-horse candidate" after learning party officials were supporting Puglia. He entered the campaign —his first ever — unofficially in October after becoming concerned about the fast pace of growth.

"I see the same thing happening here as in my hometown: a way overbuilt and unstructured area," said Whitaker, who was born and raised in Lake Mary outside Orlando.

Like Whitaker, this is the first race for Puglia (pronounced Poo-lee-a). He is a retired New York police officer and United Airlines pilot who now owns Big Red Carting, a local trash collection service.

Puglia said he plans to focus heavily on his business background and talk about improving the troubled economy.

"Having a business here and residing in the community … I have a pretty good firsthand knowledge how people are hurting," he said.

Both Whitaker and Puglia said Schenck is disconnected from the community and criticized Amendment 1 for its negative effects on local government.

They understand the uphill battle to unseat a Republican in a red district but they remain optimistic.

"I think people in the current economic environment are disenfranchised," Puglia said, "and I think it's the Democrats' year."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Democrats smell blood in House District 44 06/05/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 10, 2008 9:42am]
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