By some accounts, the battle for a small state House district composed of Citrus County and a portion of Hernando has become exactly what the Republican incumbent and his supporters hoped to avoid.
To win a second term, Rep. Jimmie T. Smith of Inverness must fend off Nancy Argenziano, a former state legislator who represented Citrus for nine years before her appointment to the Public Service Commission.
Smith has denied accusations that he was complicit in an alleged scheme to put a Democrat on the District 34 primary ballot solely to handicap Argenziano in the general election. Argenziano is a former Republican running as an Independent, so her threat would have been blunted in a three-way race.
Then the alleged prop Democrat lost the primary, the winner dropped out to make way for Argenziano, and the state Democratic Party voiced support for her.
Now the race for the Republican-leaning district offers voters a choice between two candidates with divergent stances on most issues. The result could also be historic — a third-party candidate hasn't won a House seat since 1907.
Argenziano contends Smith dutifully follows party leaders determined to reverse progress she helped past Legislatures make in areas such as environmental protection and nursing home standards.
"Watching him have no independent thinking scares the hell out of me," she said. "Everything that safeguards the public is being torn apart."
Smith, who served as deputy whip in the House, says he kept his promise to pass common-sense legislation.
"I'm trying to fix what's broken in government," he said.
Financially, Argenziano is outmatched, raising about $21,000 to Smith's roughly $276,000. Third-party fundraising groups have funneled thousands more into the race in the form of mailers and television spots attacking Argenziano. They cast her as an opportunistic turncoat. She filed a lawsuit against the Republican Party of Florida this week claiming one of the mailers defamed her.
Argenziano contends the party left her by forsaking its principles in favor of extremism and corporate interests. She said she would caucus with whichever party is on "the right side" of an issue, but her main goal is to help foil the GOP super-majority that allows party leaders to limit debate.
"The imbalance is hurting Florida," she said.
She has blasted Smith's bills requiring state workers and applicants for temporary public assistance to take drug tests.
Smith said he's most proud of the law requiring drug screenings for welfare applicants.
"We need to make sure that taxpayer money is not going toward drug dealers," he said.
Smith also cites bills he sponsored to spur an economic enterprise zone in Citrus, require state colleges and universities to give veterans priority for course enrollment, and cap severance packages for outgoing government employees.
During his first term, Smith voted to expand the state's school voucher program, allow student-led prayer in public schools, and base teacher salaries on student test scores. He also supported a proposed amendment to exempt Florida from provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act. And he voted for the bill that dismantled the Department of Community Affairs and repealed the 1985 growth management act.
Argenziano disagrees with all of those votes.
She also opposes prison privatization and expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, something Smith supports.
Argenziano said she would push to bolster ethics rules to keep lawmakers from profiting from the process. She supports closing tax loopholes, taxing Internet sales and redirecting money for pet projects to more critical needs.
Smith also has vowed to keep pushing for the shelved extension of the Suncoast Parkway into Citrus.
Reach Tony Marrero at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]