Saturday, November 18, 2017
Politics

Hundreds switch to Pasco GOP as Aug. 14 primary nears

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LAND O'LAKES — Pasco County's heated race for school superintendent prompted Allison Taylor to give up being a Democrat.

"I'm a teacher, and I feel like it's time to go in a different direction," said Taylor, an English teacher at Wesley Chapel High School for seven years.

Yet as a Democrat, Taylor would have had to sit out the election because former county commissioner Ed Collins filed as a write-in candidate, closing the Republican primary between incumbent Heather Fiorentino and challengers Kurt Browning and Ken Benson. In Florida, primary races are open to all voters unless there is a challenger in the general election.

"I didn't like the idea that I wouldn't be able to help make a decision that would directly affect my working conditions," Taylor said.

She's far from alone. In the four months since former Secretary of State Browning announced his bid to oust Fiorentino, 1,425 voters changed their party affiliation to Republican in time to vote in the Aug. 14 primary.

Of those, a Times analysis shows just more than 300 work for the school district, recently left the district or are related to an employee.

"To me, that's pretty sizable," said Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. "That's one-fifth of all the party changers. That's pretty substantive."

Though the figure might seem small, people who switch party registration just before an election are highly motivated voters who are likely to cast a ballot. And they can be potentially game-changing.

"It can make a difference when you have a lower turnout, which you traditionally do with a primary," said Vicki Davis, Martin County's elections supervisor and president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. "These people are voters and they are going to cast a vote."

High-profile superintendent campaigns have a history of generating party switchers. Back when Fiorentino faced district financial officer Chuck Rushe in a closed 2004 GOP primary, more than 600 voters re-registered as Republicans in the month before the deadline to switch.

The comparable figure this year is 759 voters, and it's heavily weighted toward party switchers with school district ties. More than two-thirds of the school district voters who recently changed parties did so in the final month before the registration deadline.

One of those who changed in 2004 is Land O'Lakes High math teacher Pat Connolly, a United School Employees of Pasco activist. He publicly urged people with an interest in the current race to make the party change if they felt boxed out by Collins' candidacy. He said he's philosophically a no-party guy, but he wanted a say in the process then and now.

He never bothered to change back, and figures many like him also might have remained Republicans after 2004 despite their independent leanings.

Martin and Patricia Kley of New Port Richey aren't connected to the school district, but they recently registered as Republicans after being no-party voters since 1997. Martin Kley said the superintendent's race, along with other local contests, prompted their decision.

"If I'm not registered as a Republican, I really can't vote," Kley said, declining to name which candidates he supports.

Terry Aunchman, a school district administrator who has contributed to Fiorentino's campaign, agreed that the choices are few for Pasco Democrats, of which he used to be one.

He said he changed parties "just to have a voice in the primary overall, not just the one race. … Locally, I'm not sure if there's any Democrats left. It just seems to me quite lopsided. The only way to be active politically, or be able to cast a vote (in many primaries), is to be of the Republican Party."

Both Fiorentino and Browning said they did not encourage voters to switch parties.

"It's a toss-up on who gets who changes," Fiorentino said.

Each acknowledged the importance of reaching these people, though, because they were motivated enough to actively take part in the election.

"People normally don't change parties for a primary unless there is a contest that is driving that," said Browning, Pasco's former elections supervisor. "I'd like to think it's because of the superintendent's race."

Corley said the voter-switching data is missing a few unknown variables, such as how many school employees are politically indifferent or how many are already Republican and didn't have to switch. Early voting begins Saturday.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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