East Hillsborough: Democrats fight for election in Republican area

BRANDON — For months now, they've been at it: knocking on doors, talking to voters, raising money. Their names are displayed prominently on front lawns and street sides.

But is it enough? Do Democratic candidates stand a chance in an area historically dominated by Republicans?

"We know that when Democrats show up, Democrats win, and we are going to have a higher turnout in East Hillsborough this year than in previous elections," said Chris Mitchell, chairman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.

But, it may not be so simple.

In 2008, the majority of voters in the eastern portion of the county voted for John McCain. In 2010, they voted for Gov. Rick Scott.

Michael Gibbons, an associate professor of political science at the University of South Florida, said he thinks this year will be no different.

"Democrats generally have a tough road across the board in an area like east Hillsborough," Gibbons said. "It's a rural area, and rural areas tend to be more conservative."

A look at candidate fundraising reveals the bias.

In each of the area's four major legislative races, Republicans have significantly outraised their Democratic opponents.

As a candidate for State Senate, Republican Tom Lee has raised more than $466,000. His opponent, Elizabeth Belcher, has raised just a fraction of that with $11,270.

It's a similar situation between Democrat Bruce Barnett and Republican Jake Raburn in the race for State House District 57.

Still, Barnett is confident. He said the area feels less Republican than it did years ago.

"All these areas are just growing super fast and families are moving in," he said. "It's not really a farming area anymore. It's military families and Walmart moms, who are more aligned with Democratic principles."

Jeff Lukens, president of the Alafia Republican Club, isn't so sure.

"If you're talking about one particular neighborhood, that could be possible," Lukens said. "As a whole, I would tend to disagree with that."

Barnett's opponent, Raburn, hasn't seen the shift in political principles either. He said he represents the same conservative ideals he was raised with in Plant City, and people in the area connect with him.

He's gotten very little negative response, he said, and has spoken with members of both parties.

"I'm running to represent the people of this district, so I need to get a feel of what's important to people on both sides of the aisle," Raburn said.

In the race for State House District 58, Democratic candidate Jose Vazquez barely registers on the fundraising scale with just $100 compared to opponent Dan Raulerson who has raised more than $157,000.

Disparity in fundraising is also apparent in the race for House District 59 between Republican Ross Spano and Democrat Gail Gottlieb, but Gottlieb has raised significantly more than her fellow Democrats in East Hillsborough.

She's the only Democrat in an East Hillsborough legislative race to gain the recommendation of the Times editorial board, and she also earned an endorsement from Rep. Kathy Castor.

She says she isn't concerned about the fundraising differences.

"Republicans routinely outraise Democrats, that's nothing new," she said. "What is remarkable is how close the race is in light of how much I've been outraised."

Gottlieb is confident that the way the state Legislature redrew the district lines this year will work in her favor. District 59 stretches across most of Brandon, Valrico and into Clair-Mel.

She has been staying focused on what she says most voters are interested in, such as education and transportation, regardless of party affiliation.

Gottlieb has gained the attention of her opponents in at least one aspect. A member of the Republican Party of Florida recently notified the Tampa Bay Times about a mailer sent by Gottlieb to voters that received nonprofit postage pricing. Gottlieb said it was a mistake on the part of the company that handles her advertisements and that the difference in cost was paid immediately.

Her opponent, Spano, was unavailable for comment.

The long ballot in this year's general election could be another campaign factor that may hinder Democrats' efforts to win over Republican voters.

"If people haven't already prepared ahead of time, they are likely to just say, 'I don't have 45 minutes to stay and read a ballot,'" Gibbons said. "A lot of people are not terrifically informed about folks further down the ballot and at that point, they are more likely to vote according to party affiliation rather than knowledge of candidates or issues."

Democrats are remaining positive, Mitchell said.

"We'll definitely see the margin close in the east part of the county," he said, "and we'll continue to see this trend going into 2014 with the big governor's race."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at srossetter@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2442.

Fundraising totals as of Oct. 12

State House of

Representatives,

District 57

Republican Jake Raburn

$156,000

Democrat Bruce Barnett

$1,740

State House of

Representatives,

District 58

Republican Dan Raulerson

$ 157,224.28

Democrat

Jose Vazquez

$100

State House of

Representatives,

District 59

Republican Ross Spano

$128,504

Democrat

Gail Gottlieb

$57,947

STATE Senate

Republican Tom Lee

$466,910

Democrat

Elizabeth Belcher

$11,270

Source: Florida Supervisor of Elections

East Hillsborough: Democrats fight for election in Republican area 10/27/12 [Last modified: Sunday, October 28, 2012 9:30pm]

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