BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis is an outsider no more.
Nienhuis cruised to victory in Tuesday's Republican primary election, taking more than 60 percent of the vote in a contest with Bobby Sullivan, a retired Pasco County sheriff's captain who now serves as executive director for public safety at Saint Leo University.
Nienhuis advances to face Democrat James "Eddie" McConnell, a Brooksville resident who most recently served as a captain at the Groveland Police Department, and write-in candidate Nicholas Piccinich. The decisive victory in the primary adds to the edge Nienhuis already had as a Republican incumbent in a county that leans toward GOP candidates.
"I was confident the voters were going to speak clearly, and they've exceeded anything I could have expected," said Nienhuis, who gathered Tuesday night with his family members and supporters to watch the returns at Rookies Sports Bar and Grill in Spring Hill.
Sullivan did not return a message from the Times on Tuesday evening.
The win comes 18 months after then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Nienhuis to finish the term of Rich Nugent, who was elected to Congress in 2010. Nugent had recommended that Crist pick Col. Mike Maurer.
Instead, Crist chose Nienhuis, who at the time was undersheriff in Pasco under Bob White. Sullivan, a native Brooksville resident who worked under Nienhuis for about seven years and ran for Pasco sheriff in 2008, tried to cast his former boss as an outsider forced on the county because of his political connections.
Nienhuis appointed Maurer as his second-in-command and got to work making himself known in the community, joining local boards for several local nonprofit groups.
During the campaign, Nienhuis noted that the county's crime rate has reached a 20-year low and that the crime clearance rate is the highest in two decades. He told voters he and wife, Rhonda, and their three daughters consider Hernando home.
Nienhuis said he plans to take some time off today to wave thank-you signs. Then it's back to work on two fronts.
"We've got to continue working really hard at the Sheriff's Office, and we're going to continue working really hard on the campaign," Nienhuis said. "As long as I have an opponent, we're going to run wide open."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.