ST. PETERSBURG — To understand the serious challenges Florida Democrats face clawing their way back to relevancy in America's biggest battleground state, consider Pinellas County Exhibit A:
It's a safe bet that Barack Obama will carry Florida's most densely populated county in November, even if Mitt Romney wins the state. The president won Pinellas by more than 8 percentage point fours years ago, after all, and Alex Sink comfortably beat Rick Scott two years ago in that GOP wave election.
But it's also plausible that once the votes are counted Nov. 6, Democrats in Pinellas will wind up with few — if any — other gains, despite their slight advantage in registered voters.
We won't know who's running until the candidate qualifying deadline closes at noon Friday, so it's too early for predictions. Still, we know that money matters in politics — sadly, more than anything else in many cases — and we know Republican legislative candidates are almost sure to have vastly more money than the Democrats.
Democrats will likely pick up a number of legislative seats across the state, thanks to redistricting improving the competitive landscape. It will likely take several election cycles before they regain enough clout in Tallahassee to attract significant special interest donations, however, and that will have a key role in what happens in Pinellas elections this year.
Let's take an early look at the Pinellas political landscape, starting with local races.
With one decision — halting fluoride treatment in the county water system — Republican commissioners Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield handed Democrats a prime opportunity to cast the incumbents as anti-science Neanderthals.
Two respected Democrats stepped up: former state Sen. Charlie Justice to take on Bostock and former state Rep. Janet Long to challenge Brickfield. They still look like serious underdogs.
Through March, Justice raised less than $4,000, compared to $30,000 for Bostock. For a veteran legislator and former congressional candidate, that is so pathetic it's not clear Justice is even a serious candidate. Long has not yet filed a finance report, and Brickfield, a relentless campaigner, has raised more than $40,000.
Meanwhile, the Pinellas Republican Party has nearly $260,000 on hand to help local candidates, compared to $19,000 for the Pinellas Democratic Party. And the local GOP won't have to spend much defending other county offices, as not one Democrat has yet stepped up to challenge the county's Republican clerk of court, tax collector, property appraiser or supervisor of elections. It looks like the only Democrat running for sheriff will be smoke shop owner and perennial candidate Randy Heine.
Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala, who hasn't yet announced whether he will run in North Pinellas District 20 or South Pinellas/Tampa District 22, casts a big shadow. District 22 is a competitive district Democrats can win, but Democrats acknowledge it's been hard to recruit strong candidates against the popular, and often moderate, Latvala.
No major Democrat has emerged for that district, and none for District 20.
Democrats have at least three strong opportunities to win seats, but resources will be a huge hurdle. Between the political committees operated by assorted legislative leaders and the House Republican campaign operation, Republicans are likely to have anywhere from five times to as much as 10 times as much money to invest in those races.
Let's work our way from north to south.
House District 65: Republican Peter Nehr is defending this redrawn seat, which has become slightly more Republican-leaning. Nehr, who won with more than 60 percent two years ago, faces potential primary opponents, and the Democrat running is Carl Zimmerman, making his third attempt to beat Nehr.
House District 66: Republican state Rep. Larry Ahern is moving into this seat, which became considerably more Republican-leaning in redistricting. Announced Democrats include Mary Louise Ambrose, a lawyer in Belleair Bluffs, and Joanne Kennedy.
House District 67: Republican state Rep. Ed Hooper is now running in the district that Barack Obama and Alex Sink won comfortably. Democrats recruited Bennett Farrell, who runs Clearwater's Lenny's restaurant. If this were an open race Democrats would be favored to win it, but with Hooper in the race it could be a few years before Democrats pick off the seat.
House District 68: The St. Petersburg-area district Republican Jeff Brandes is vacating to run for state Senate as an open seat looks like the Democrats' best shot in Pinellas. Democrats recruited lawyer Dwight Dudley, nephew of St. Petersburg council member Bill Dudley, while Republican former state Rep. Frank Farkas announced Tuesday he is running for the seat. Also announced is Republican Daryle Lee Hamel and unaffiliated candidate Matthew Weidner.
House District 69: This is another open seat, since Democrat Rick Kriseman opted not to run again. It's a swing district. Democrats have recruited financial planner Josh Shulman, who last year finished in third place in his bid for St. Petersburg City Council. Announced Republicans running for the seat include Republican activist and IT consultant Jim Dobyns, South Pasadena Mayor Kathleen Peters and lawyer David Phillips.
"We've recruited a strong slate of candidates who are part of the Pinellas community and who are energized and excited and raising the necessary money to be competitive,'' said Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based consultant working on the Democrats' state House campaigns. "And we're going to have a strong ground game from the president all the way down the ticket."
Indeed, the Democrats are fielding some solid candidates in Pinellas, but mostly they are either ceding races, running newcomers against incumbents or facing a hefty financial disadvantage.
It could be another tough year for Pinellas' supposed majority party.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]