The Democratic primary for the state House District 34 seat pits a retired human resources executive-turned-teacher against an automotive technician.
That's the race on paper anyway.
The contest between the two political newcomers is also being shaped by a conspiracy theory and a former Republican state senator who will appear on the general election ballot as an independent.
The winner of the primary will challenge Republican incumbent Jimmie T. Smith and independent candidate Nancy Argenziano. The newly drawn district includes all of Citrus County and the portion of Hernando County generally north of State Road 50 and west of the Suncoast Parkway. As a result of the recently completed redistricting process, the heavily Republican District 34 has a larger portion of Hernando County, with nearly 16,000 total Hernando residents.
Lynn Dostal of Homosassa ran his own human resources firm and now works part time as an exceptional education teacher at Gulf Coast Academy in Spring Hill
Robert Goocher works at his family's business, Bob's Car Care in Inverness.
Beyond that, little is known about Goocher or his platform. He appears to be doing little to no active campaigning in person. He hasn't shown up at candidate forums, and Democratic officials in both counties say he hasn't reached out to them or even returned their calls.
Nor has Goocher returned numerous calls and electronic messages from the Tampa Bay Times since he filed in mid May. Other media outlets have reported that he has not responded to them either.
Goocher did tell the Citrus County Chronicle that he paid the $1,781.82 filing fee without any help. He earns about $19,200 a year and has no assets other than his GMC truck, according to campaign financial records.
All of this has fueled speculation that Goocher is a "straw dog" candidate whose real goal is to help Smith, say Dostal and others, including Hernando Democratic executive chairman Steve Zeledon.
The theory emerged, in large part, because of the timing of Goocher's arrival. Dostal was the only Democrat in the race when Argenziano entered the race as an independent. The former Republican wanted to become a Democrat but was stymied by a new elections law that moved up the deadline to switch parties.
Argenziano's roots in Citrus County and her reputation as a populist, especially as the outspoken former chairwoman of the state's Public Service Commission, have won her plenty of fans across the political spectrum. Dostal is one of them.
After Argenziano filed, Dostal announced he was suspending his campaign. She had the better chance of beating Smith in the general election, Dostal reasoned, and a Democrat would pull votes from her. Then Goocher filed, and Dostal got suspicious, so he revived his campaign in an effort to beat Goocher and then drop out to allow for a head-to-head general election matchup between Argenziano and Smith.
That's not necessarily the plan anymore, Dostal said. Now he wants to wait and see what kind of support he gets in the primary and, if he wins, what the polling numbers look like ahead of the general election.
Dostal is encouraged by feedback so far from supporters.
"I can't tell you how many people say, 'I have researched your background online, and you are the person we want to win,' " he said.
Dostal said he wants to wait at least until an Oct. 18 candidates forum in Citrus to decide whether he will stay in the race, but he won't have nearly that much time if he wants to keep his name off the ballot. Elections officials must mail absentee ballots to overseas voters by Sept. 22.
Even if Dostal does decide to bow out, the law allows state party officials to select an alternative candidate. But state officials appear to be paying little attention to the race, given the district's heavily Republican demographic.
David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, declined to comment.
A native of Cleveland, Dostal was the youngest of three boys born to Czech immigrants. His mother was a teacher, his father was a railroad engineer, and both were union members.
He spent three years in the Army, two of them as a squad leader for an equipment section. He received an honorable discharge in 1962.
Dostal eventually became a foreman at Republic Steel in Cleveland. After earning his master's in business administration from Cleveland State University, he began a career in human resources, working for several corporations.
His last post was director of human resources for Newbreed Logistics in Greensboro, N.C. There, he said, he reported directly to the company's chief executive and managed an operation with 2,500 employees. Dostal later ran his own human resources consulting firm for about 10 years.
Dostal and his wife, Sandy, moved to Citrus County in 2006, and both went back to school to earn teaching certificates. He taught at Crystal River Middle School and Parrott Middle School in Brooksville, and next week he will start his third year at Gulf Coast.
Dostal says his experience as a supervisor managing people and budgets and negotiating labor contracts makes him a better candidate than Goocher and the Republican incumbent.
He fundamentally disagrees with policies enacted by the Republican Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott and wants to act as a counterbalance.
"Essentially, I want to undo the harm Scott has caused and to move our state forward in a progressive direction," he said.
Dostal wants to shift the emphasis away from high-stakes tests such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. He favors eliminating school voucher programs so that more dollars flow to public schools, and he proposes a "best practices bank" that would serve as a clearinghouse for strategies that have been successful in school districts throughout the state.
The longtime union member opposes efforts to privatize prisons and supports collective bargaining rights.
The state should close corporate tax loopholes, Dostal says, and implement an Internet sales tax. And he proposes a "Florida First" program that would encourage local manufacturing, agriculture and aquaculture to efficiently deliver goods to the surrounding community.
Dostal has raised $2,102 for his campaign, much of that from his own pockets and the rest from individual donors.
According to his Facebook page, Goocher is a Spring Hill native and a 2005 graduate of Lecanto High School.
He has been a registered Democrat since 2006 and turned 19 in February of that year, but he has not voted once since then, records show.
Facebook photos show him smiling behind the wheel of a fishing boat and popping a wheelie on an all-terrain vehicle.
If Goocher really is a shell candidate, political committees are spending a lot of money on the charade. There have been radio and television ads, and voters have received several mailers sent on Goocher's behalf from Putting Florida First Inc., an electioneering corporation. The mailers offer little biographical information or specifics about Goocher's platform.
One of the mailers refers to Scott as a "Tallahassee extremist" who has failed to protect the middle class.
"We need Robert Goocher on our side, fighting to get our government working for us again," the mailer proclaims.
Another says Goocher will "fight for Florida's schools … because our future is too valuable to leave in the hands of Rick Scott."
The registrants of Putting Florida First are Andrew Jones and Kim Mask, both of Tallahassee, records show. Jones could not be reached, and Mask did not return messages from the Times. An email sent through the group's website did not garner a response.
"Our pledge is to support ideas, concepts and public officials who support the concept of efficient and effective leadership in Florida Government," the website says.
The group's largest contributors, records show, are the Florida Chamber of Commerce Alliance, United States Sugar Corp. and the Geo Group Inc., a private firm that provides correctional and detention management services to governments.
Goocher's campaign had raised $2,450 from six contributors through July 20. Though he reportedly claimed he had paid the qualifying fee himself, the check was written from the campaign fund, and he has not personally loaned his campaign any money, records show.
Goocher has received $500 from the Florida Optometric Political Action Committee and another $500 from Florida Optometric CCE.
Chase Palmes, owner of a Homosassa insurance agency, personally contributed $500 and gave another $500 from his firm. Palmes, a 59-year-old registered Republican, did not return a call seeking comment.
This week, another glossy Goocher flier arrived in mailboxes. Instead of a photo of Goocher, this one featured a mugshot of Dostal surrounded by a circle with a red line through it and a Times headline from June 22: Candidate plans to win, quit.
The mailer accuses Dostal of conspiring to trick Democrats with a "deceptive" and "misleading plan" to drop out if he wins.
"Lynn Dostal's back room deal is a raw deal for Democrats," the mailer proclaims. It doesn't say who was on the other end of the deal, though Dostal presumes it's referring to Argenziano.
The Times story that appeared under the headline offered a more nuanced account of Dostal's plans, noting that he was willing to drop out if Argenziano looked like the strongest candidate.
"It's been totally transparent," Dostal said. "If he's putting out that kind of dirty trash on me, it means I'm doing something right."
News researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]
Editor's note: This story is part of a series leading up to Tuesday's primary election.