Saturday, June 23, 2018
Politics

Republican Raulerson counting on Democratic voters in state House bid

Eight years into his political career, Jose Vazquez may best be known as the candidate who once filed campaign papers from behind bars.

Now in his fourth campaign, Vazquez is still working to excite a base of supporters.

Yet for the second time in six years, he ran unopposed in the Aug. 30 Democratic primary for Florida House District 58 and now faces a long shot of a general election challenge against Republican Dan Raulerson, the incumbent.

And this is despite a Democratic advantage of thousands of voters in District 58 — Plant City and much of Hillsborough County's eastern suburbs along the Interstate 4 corridor.

So why can't Vazquez make a dent? Or why can't the Democratic Party find someone else to run?

The answer may be that this district has a number of voters who are Democrats in name only.

"They are what you might call Dixie Democrats," Raulerson said. "They never changed parties but vote conservative."

That assessment is spot on, said Chris Ingram, a Tampa-based Republican political consultant.

"Their moms and dads were Democrats with conservative leanings and they maintained that out of tradition and habit but in general elections they lean to the right."

The same philosophy applies to voters in District 58 who register as No Party Affiliation. They number 22,500 this year.

"They are more conservative leaning in that district, for sure," Ingram said.

Because of this, Ingram said, the Democratic Party of Florida has been reluctant to spend much time fielding candidates.

"You have to pick your battles," Ingram said. "The Republicans do that, too."

In 2014, Raulerson ran unopposed in the District 58 general election.

"I wish the party had more money to spend," said Victor DiMaio, legislative liaison for the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.

"Money doesn't mean everything but money buys a lot of love in politics. It buys yard signs and TV ads and mailers and radio spots. Bottom line — people vote by name recognition."

District 58 registration has been trending Republican in recent years.

In 2012, Democrats held a nearly 4,500 voter advantage when Vazquez lost to Republican Raulerson. In 2014, when Raulerson ran unopposed, it had dropped to slightly over 4,000 votes.

This year, Democrats have a registered voting edge of about 3,000.

Raulerson is a two-term state representative and a former Plant City commissioner and mayor.

Vazquez worked in politics in Puerto Rico as a field and campaign manager for the New Progressive Party.

He owns a recycling company in Brandon.

When he filed campaign papers from jail during his first campaign in 2008, he was there for driving on a revoked or suspended license in May 2007. Vazquez ran unsuccessfully then as a write-in candidate against Michael Scionti in the Democratic Primary for District 58, although it had different boundaries than it does today.

In 2012, the Democratic Party of Hillsborough County released a statement saying it did not support Vazquez's campaign.

He also ran unsuccessfully as a write-in candidate for mayor of Tampa in 2015.

For this election, Raulerson has raised $86,284 from big-name contributors like TECO Energy, Duke Energy, Lykes Bros. and Brighthouse Networks. Vazquez has raised $4,989, which includes $2,500 from the Democratic Party of Hillsborough County and more than $1,000 of his own money.

Still, Vazquez remains upbeat. He notes that he won 42 percent of the vote in 2012 and believes the "Trump factor" could swing those conservative-leaning Democrats and No Party Affiliation voters to his side.

"Hillary and Bernie supporters will vote for me," he said.

"You never know," Democratic Party liaison Dimaio said.

"Jose has been running for office for a long time. I guess we will have to wait and see."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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