Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri cruised to victory in the general election Tuesday, concluding a long, difficult and expensive campaign to convince voters he should remain in the job Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to last year.
He had 59 percent of the vote compared with 40 percent for Democratic challenger Scott Swope at the end of the night, according to unofficial results.
Gualtieri declared victory shortly before 9 p.m. at a Republican watch party at the Hilton St. Petersburg Carillon Park hotel after Swope called him to concede.
"The voters spoke today, and obviously like what they see," said Gualtieri, 51.
It was the most closely contested race for the county's top law enforcement position in more than two decades.
The sheriff's post is typically inherited by a Republican without much opposition at the ballot box.
But this year, Gualtieri faced a popular former sheriff during the GOP primary and a poorly funded but serious Democrat in Tuesday's general election.
Political observers were most keenly attuned to the primary, in which Gualtieri scored an against-the-odds win over former four-term Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice. Combined, the two campaigns spent close to $700,000 on that race.
Once he had defeated Rice, Gualtieri had depleted much of his treasury and still had to face Swope, a personal-injury lawyer from Palm Harbor who had served as a sheriff's deputy and traffic court magistrate.
Swope, 43, raised about $45,000 and ran a persistent campaign, repeatedly alleging mismanagement of the Sheriff's Office.
But in the end, it wasn't enough to overcome Gualtieri's name recognition and fundamental advantage in a county that has voted in a Republican sheriff in every election since 1980.
"It was an uphill battle to begin with," Swope said Tuesday night. "He out-fundraised me probably 8 to 1. There were some negative things that came out during the campaign."
Though a serious competitor, Swope faced flaws in his campaign as well. His promises on the campaign trail to bring sound financial management to the Sheriff's Office were undercut by his personal history, including his role overseeing a Clearwater law firm that fell apart after saddling itself with debt.
As he contemplated another four years as sheriff Tuesday night, Gualtieri said he thinks the bitterness felt by deputies who opposed his candidacy — particularly in the primary campaign — already is subsiding.