Up until just a few weeks ago, it seemed possible that voters in the 5th Congressional District would be treated to an intriguing contest between U.S. Rep Rich Nugent and state Sen. Mike Fasano.
The match-up would have given Fasano the shot that he and other Republicans felt they were denied in 2010 when then-Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite handpicked Nugent as her successor.
Now, however, Nugent and Fasano face very different paths. New political maps taking shape in Tallahassee as part of the redistricting process would place them in different districts.
Nugent, a Spring Hill Republican, wants a second two-year term so much that the former Hernando County sheriff is willing to challenge a veteran GOP lawmaker from Marion County to do it.
Fasano's ambitions to represent this area in Congress, on the other hand, appear to be dashed because he doesn't plan to challenge another popular Republican.
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Congressional districts must be redrawn every 10 years. Earlier versions of the maps trimmed the sprawling 5th District, which includes all or parts of eight counties, into a more compact area comprised of Hernando and Pasco.
The version expected to be approved, however, puts Hernando in proposed District 11, along with all of Citrus and Sumter counties and a portion of Marion County.
That chunk of Marion is home to U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, who has served since 1988. Nugent currently represents much of the proposed district, while most of Stearns's current district would be shifted to a new District 3.
Stearns said in a statement last week that he has not decided where to run. He told Nugent the same thing recently when the two men spoke, Nugent told the Tampa Bay Times last week.
"The bottom line is, I hope that doesn't happen," Nugent said of a potential contest with Stearns. "The ball is now in Cliff's court. I told him that I'm running. I was very plainspoken about it. I understand it's a tough decision for him. But at the end of the day, we hope he makes the right decision, to run in District 3."
Stearns offered a potential hint in his brief statement, noting that about 70 percent of the population he currently represents would be in District 3. He would not be required to move there if he decides to run and wins.
"I'm taking the time to call my supporters in north-central Florida and asking for their comments before making a decision," Stearns said. "No matter which district I may ultimately decide to run in, if elected I will continue to represent the fine folks of Marion County."
Among the candidates who have filed to run for the District 3 seat is state Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Gainesville Republican who currently represents much of the proposed congressional district.
Oelrich had not spoken to Stearns, but told the Times on Friday that he had heard reliable reports that Stearns intends to run in District 3.
Either way, Stearns has a fight ahead of him, Oelrich said.
"He absolutely is boxed in a little bit," he said. "I've been elected by 65 percent of the voters in this district. I think it's going to be very interesting."
Stearns already has a $2.4 million campaign war chest on hand, compared to Nugent's $165,000, but the former sheriff would still be favored, said Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Hernando Republican Executive Committee and vice chairman of the state party.
"Rich has been highly visible in his congressional district already, so he already has a base to draw from," Ingoglia said. "He has name recognition. People know him and know the staff. So it would definitely give him a leg up over Cliff Stearns."
The race for what was the 5th District had drawn three no-party challengers, but two of those candidates — John Russell of Dade City and Eileen Fleming of Clermont — are not in the proposed 11th District. The third, Ray Bruce Riggs of Crystal River, is, and so is David Werder, a Spring Hill resident who has prefiled as a Democrat.
Neither Werder nor Riggs pose a threat to Nugent, however. And even a more formidable Democratic opponent would be an underdog in the new 11th District because it leans heavily Republican.
Nugent handily won his seat in 2010 by quietly filing at the last minute at the request of Brown-Waite, who then announced she was resigning because of health issues. That move angered some Republicans, including Fasano, who could have considered running for the open seat.
So is Nugent relieved that a potential challenge this year from Fasano, a popular politician with statewide name recognition, was thwarted by the new maps?
"Mike Fasano doesn't scare me in the least," Nugent said. "We were prepared to go head to head if that's the way they'd drawn the maps."
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Fasano's problem is his new congressional district, comprised primarily of Pasco, also includes portions of northern Pinellas and Hillsborough — and the home of a well-liked incumbent whose name is political gold around these parts: Gus Bilirakis.
"If a seat is drawn to where Congressman Bilirakis would be seeking re-election, I would not right now seek that seat," Fasano told the Times. "But that can change over the next few weeks or month or so."
Bilirakis plans to run for the new District 12, which isn't entirely new territory. He currently represents much of west Pasco, along with a strip of northern Pinellas and Hillsborough. He would lose a swath of eastern Hillsborough while picking up the balance of Pasco.
Fasano ally Rep. John Legg — a member of the state House leadership who played a key role in drawing the new maps — said the district was a compromise. He would have preferred the earlier proposal that combined Pasco and Hernando. Those two counties, he said, share the Suncoast Parkway and are both booming suburbs and water donors.
"I'm a little disappointed in the final product versus where we were," said Legg, R-Port Richey.
Fasano, who has removed himself from the redistricting process in the state Senate, said "there's no question" the two counties have more in common than what Pasco shares with its neighbors to the south.
Absent a run for Congress, Fasano could be eyeing a return to the state House. With Legg campaigning for the Senate, Fasano could run for an open west Pasco-based House seat that is closely divided between Democrats and Republicans.
The congressional map was approved by the House on Friday. The Senate is likely to consider it early this week, and legislative leaders don't expect any changes. It would then go to Gov. Rick Scott for his approval.
In the meantime, no candidate's plans are chiseled in stone. For one thing, after Scott signs Florida's congressional map, it must still be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice to see if it complies with federal voting rights laws.
Plus, any citizen could challenge the districts in federal court, though that process might stretch beyond this year's qualifying period and affect the 2014 election.