Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Pinellas County Commission races may be tighter than usual

Historically, elections for the Pinellas County Commission have not been nail-biters for Republican incumbents.

Two years ago, when Commissioner John Morroni's term was up, no one bothered to oppose him. That same year, his colleague and fellow Republican Susan Latvala won re-election with 57 percent of the vote. It was the closest she had come to a tight race — the previous two elections she had sailed through unopposed.

The last time a Republican incumbent lost a seat on the commission during the general election was in 1984.

But that trend could end this year for the two Republicans at the end of their first terms — Neil Brickfield and Nancy Bostock — both of whom appear to be in competitive races.

It's difficult to tell exactly how close their races are. The candidates say they have not paid for polling, which, in addition to nerve-wracking, is expensive.

The only publicly released polls have come from St. Pete Polls, a side project of Fextel Inc., a St. Petersburg company that sells business phone systems and services. In two surveys, both conducted in October of registered voters across the county, Brickfield and Bostock appeared to be nearly tied with their Democratic challengers.

Neither of them gives much credence to the numbers coming out of St. Pete Polls, which relies on automated phone surveys. But both are running as though they could be in trouble.

For several weeks, Brickfield's campaign has been running a cable TV ad that targets his opponent, former state Rep. Janet Long. He recently extended the ad's run.

"My main push is from the day mail ballots go out until 7 p.m. on Nov. 6," he said.

Brickfield had raised just over $143,000 by mid October and spent nearly $93,000 of that. In mid September, the Pinellas County Republican Party gave his campaign a $25,000 boost, more than double what it has given Bostock.

Bostock, who is being challenged by former state Sen. Charlie Justice, has raised nearly $69,000 and has spent most of it on direct mail and road signs. Recently, she said, she has begun going door-to-door in districts that are more heavily Democratic, hoping to sway voters.

Outside groups are also taking the races seriously. A pro-Republican electioneering organization called Main Street Leadership Council sent fliers to Pinellas voters attacking Long and Justice as being "too costly," and "too out of touch."

Reflecting on her conversations with voters, Bostock said she's been struck by how many have told her they plan to vote Republican all the way down the ballot.

"I hate to make any predictions, but it's been very positive, and it's been increasingly positive week to week," she said.

With mere days to go until Nov. 6, Justice has tried to strike back.

In one new mailer, he criticizes Bostock for being one of the four county commissioners who voted to stop adding fluoride to drinking water last year. Another mailer depicts her as hard-hearted for voting against funding Meals on Wheels. "How could she say no?" the ad asks in big letters. But Bostock said the claim is out of context — when finances were tight, she voted against dipping into reserves to fund a handful of programs, one of which was Meals on Wheels.

"If you look at past performances, you wouldn't expect a blowout by either side," Justice said, noting that when seats have opened up on the commission, the candidates vying for them have often been in close races. Both Bostock and Brickfield won by about 4 percentage points in 2008.

In this race, he said, the Republicans are one-term incumbents in an office that usually does not provide a lot of name recognition. The Democrats are former state lawmakers.

"It's not like you're running against someone who's been there for 20 years," he said. "I don't see that big power of incumbency."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

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