NEW PORT RICHEY — Even those who support Jim Mathieu for the state House 36 seat recognize it's an uphill battle.
"Mike Fasano has the edge," said Bill Bunting, the GOP state committeeman and a bitter foe of Fasano, the term-limited state senator who is looking to return to the state House. Bunting gave $250 to the war chest of Mathieu, a former Port Richey city attorney who serves as vice chairman of the Pasco County Republican Party. Bunting's wife, Ann, also gave $200 to Mathieu.
Mathieu remains confident the race will be close. He points out that it's a closed, winner-take-all GOP primary involving only about 34,000 voters. If turnout is 30 percent, that means about 10,000 voters would decide the next state representative for this west Pasco district. (Mathieu's next-door neighbor, Joseph Verola, filed as a write-in candidate, closing the primary to all but registered Republicans.)
He's counting on help from party loyalists, who are more likely to frown on Fasano's rejection of GOP darling Marco Rubio during the 2010 U.S. Senate campaign. Fasano supported Charlie Crist even when Crist left the party to run as an independent.
A Mathieu mailer criticizes Fasano for that decision and touts Mathieu as "a lifelong conservative who has worked to help elect Republicans to office" and mentions his endorsement by the county's Republican Party.
"About 200 members of the Republican Executive Committee support me," he said.
Fasano called that number "miniscule." He said he's not worried but also not complacent.
"We always work like we're 10 points behind," he said.
If you look at finances, Fasano is crushing Mathieu and his other opponent, Michael D. Kennedy, a Hudson electrician.
State records show he has raised more than $116,000 so far and spent $56,840 on mailers and cable television ads. That pales in comparison to Mathieu's $21,000, which includes a $7,500 loan. Kennedy has raised $450, all from relatives.
Those who know Fasano say the 18-year lawmaker has got a lock on the seat.
"There's no doubt in my mind that Mike's going to win," said Michael Cox, a former County Commissioner and Port Richey City Council member. "I'd say he's got 8,000 votes easy."
Cox, a Democrat, said he at first expected Fasano to be "someone who wouldn't give a Democrat two and half seconds of his time."
But Fasano surprised him.
"He was the first person who called to congratulate me on my win," he said.
Cox said Fasano was a huge help on local issues. He played a major role in helping the county secure $5 million in state aid to lure financial giant T. Rowe Price to the Long Lake Ranch area. He also worked to help the county get a new hurricane shelter in Hudson that bears his name.
"Party labels don't matter when a person is a good public servant," Cox said. "Mike is a good public servant and a good guy."
Fasano is counting on that reputation to get votes from "the little guy and gal" he says he advocates for by fighting rate hikes for private utilities and advance charges to build Progress Energy's nuclear plant or rising homeowners' insurance premiums.
Mathieu and Kennedy said they would also emphasize good constituent service.
Mathieu, an attorney, said he wants to examine bills at a "granular level" to make sure they don't have unintended consequences. He said he wants to read every bill before he votes on it.
That might be easier said than done, said Ben Wilcox, a longtime lobbyist who now represents the League of Women Voters.
"It would take an awful long time," he said. About 9,000 bills and resolutions were filed in the Florida House during the 2012 session, although many of those bills did not make it to the House floor.
Mathieu said he knows that would be difficult, but perhaps the session needs to be longer than 60 days.
"Some states meet for six months," he said. "I would refuse to vote on anything I couldn't read and review."
The platforms of the three candidates lack sharp differences, though they cite different ways to solve problems.
Kennedy stresses his service as a contractor in Afghanistan, where he worked with people from different countries. He said he decided to run after seeing all the partisan bickering on television.
"I thought, I can make people get along," he said.
Kennedy said his top priority is being "pro-life" and he also wants to lower insurance rates "across the board." He said banks should be forced to pay part of a home's insurance premiums based on the equity they hold.
Mathieu said Citizens should never have been allowed to compete with private insurers in the first place and lawmakers should create an "exit strategy."
Fasano said insurance companies shouldn't be allowed to cherry pick and offer only profitable types of policies while refusing to cover homes. He also suggests making Citizens a statewide windstorm pool while allowing private companies to cover other perils.
"I shall continue to be the voice of those who otherwise do not have a seat at the table," he said.