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For GOP chairman Thrasher, election poses real challenges

JACKSONVILLE — After he served as speaker of the House, he made millions as a lobbyist in Tallahassee.

Now he's a state senator and heads the Republican Party of Florida, giving him direct access to mountains of campaign money. He's extremely well-connected.

So why does John Thrasher seem worried?

"I take every opponent seriously," he says.

Politicians always say that. But Thrasher, who has two opponents this year, sounds and acts like he really means it.

He has a Republican challenger, so a pro-Thrasher 527 group, The Responsible Leadership Committee, is spending special interest money (Blue Cross Blue Shield) to attack the little-known Dr. Charles Perniciaro.

"We're all frustrated with political insiders who become accustomed to power and easy money," Perniciaro says on his website, adding that the system needs to be taken back from "self-serving career politicians."

Perniciaro has donated $300,000 to his effort. He used to be a Democrat, so a 527 mailer (paid for by Blue Cross) links Perniciaro to Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. So the doctor produced state records showing he has only donated to Republican candidates.

Thrasher won the Senate District 8 seat last fall in a special election following the death of former Sen. Jim King.

The battleground includes much of Jacksonville and parts of four other counties. The district is solidly Republican by voter registration: 44 percent GOP and 32 percent Democratic with 24 percent unaffiliated. There are about 50,000 more Republicans than Democrats in the district.

If Thrasher wins the primary, he will face Democrat Deborah Gianoulis in November.

The 55-year-old Ponte Vedra Beach resident is also a first-time candidate with a very interesting background. For nearly 25 years, she was the anchorwoman on WJXT-Ch. 4, Jacksonville's most watched TV station.

People in Jacksonville may not be able to spell her name, but anyone with a TV can pronounce it (gee-a-NO-lis).

Well-prepared and telegenic, Gianoulis was motivated to run in large part because Thrasher championed Senate Bill 6, the unpopular teacher merit pay bill Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed.

She says she'll listen to the concerns of people in the district more than Thrasher did, on that and other issues.

"That process was not inclusive of people," she says. "My message is, 'I want to hear your point of view, and you have to trust me to be fair. I am always going to listen.' "

Thrasher says Gianoulis' problem is that voters don't know what she stands for, and she'll have to defend her Democratic allegiances "vis-a-vis the national scene, the Obama people, Nancy Pelosi and all of that. That's a tough row to hoe in this area."

Depending upon the outcome of the Aug. 24 primary, though, Thrasher may have his own political allegiances to defend.

Last Monday, former Gov. Jeb Bush was in Jacksonville stumping for Bill McCollum for governor, and Thrasher turned up too, despite the custom that party chairmen remain neutral. Bush made a playful pitch for his friend Thrasher.

"He needs your help. He's getting a little old," Bush said. "He's on Social Security. He can't go door to door like he used to."

The comment brought a laugh, but it might not be so funny if Rick Scott takes the GOP nomination for governor away from McCollum.

Thrasher will have to run for his Senate seat while, in his other role as party chairman, embracing a guy who would have won in spite of Jeb and the Republican Party establishment.

When you stop and think about it, maybe it makes sense for Thrasher to run scared.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

For GOP chairman Thrasher, election poses real challenges 08/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, August 13, 2010 10:37pm]
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