BROOKSVILLE — Maybe the numbers would have been easier to take had Ginny Brown-Waite been running again.
But as Jason Sager watched the returns come in Tuesday night with friends, family and supporters at the Quality Inn in Ridge Manor West, his sense of puzzlement grew.
"I must admit I was a little shocked in terms of the numbers," Sager said Thursday in his first interview with the Times since Tuesday's primary election. "I knew we were an outside-the-box chance all along, but I didn't expect the numbers to swing that far."
Sager took just less than 38 percent of the vote in his bid against Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent for the District 5 congressional seat currently held by Brown-Waite, a Brooksville Republican. Nugent won every one of the eight counties in the sprawling district, though Sager came within in a handful of votes in Sumter County.
Sager had filed last year, planning to challenge the popular incumbent. Then Brown-Waite bowed out due to health issues, asking Nugent to run in her place. Sager tapped the frustration of a tea party movement and cast Nugent — who was relatively unknown beyond Hernando County — as the establishment candidate. He figured that would make for a closer vote.
So why didn't it?
"Money," Sager said.
Nugent used a war chest four times the size of Sager's and loaded with political action committee money to mail out glossy campaign fliers throughout the district.
"In the final weeks of the campaign, they were all negative and distorted about me and used to scare people," Sager said. "But that's what politicians do."
One of the mailers said Sager's plan for Social Security would jeopardize benefits. Sager had tried to make it clear that he supported a plan that would phase out the program over three generations, keeping benefits intact for those older than 55.
Nugent and Sager were amicable toward one another when they crossed paths at forums. But tensions grew as Nugent went on the offensive, questioning Sager's loyalty to the GOP, his voting record and his involvement in two right-wing groups that used satire — and in the case of one group, racially charged slogans — to combat progressive groups.
From Sager's perspective, it was a smear campaign that ended with a sour postscript on Wednesday, when he saw a published quote from Nugent calling Sager an unemployed hypocrite who talks a good game but lacks substance.
Sager, who insists he ran a clean campaign, said any remaining urge to support Nugent beyond voting for him evaporated at that point.
"I couldn't have been more disgusted," he said.
Reached Thursday, Nugent said he gave that quote "well over a month ago" as the campaign was heating up. Its appearance on Wednesday, after the primary, was unfortunate, he said.
Nugent said he recalls being called a liar by Sager at one point.
"Things are said in the heat of a campaign that both sides say, 'I wish I wouldn't have phrased it that way,' " he said. "I don't hold it against him for saying that."
Some on Nugent's campaign team wanted to make an issue of disparaging comments made on tea party websites about him and his staff by Sager, but Nugent said he declined to do so.
Striking a conciliatory tone, Nugent said he admired Sager's courage to campaign in the first place.
"It takes something special. It's always easier to sit back," he said. "I've got to give him a lot of credit for stepping up and putting himself and his family up to public scrutiny."
Hernando Republican Executive Committee Chairman Blaise Ingoglia declined to reflect Thursday on the tactics and tone of the campaign. He said the party has to look forward now to help Nugent defeat Democrat Jim Piccillo, a 36-year-old small business consultant from Land O'Lakes. Piccillo is a longshot in a district drawn to favor Republicans.
"I think Rich Nugent's campaign shouldn't take anything for granted," Ingoglia said. "He should go out and stay on message, and if he does so this seat will stay in Republican hands."
For Sager, the focus is now back on his family — and on finding work.
The married father of a young son has been unemployed since last year, when he lost his job as an audio-visual technician at Sound Advice. He decided to become a full-time candidate, paying himself about $1,000 a month out of his campaign contributions. He said he garnered some job leads from people he met on the campaign trail.
"I'm sure things will get better," he said.
Some asked Sager during the campaign why he felt compelled to rush to Congress instead of gaining political experience in local or state office first. The federal government is growing out of control, Sager replied, and the need is urgent to get back to fundamentals in the Constitution.
But on Thursday, he didn't rule out a bid for lower office in the future. He lives in Brooksville in County Commission District 3. The occupant of that seat, John Druzbick, comes up for re-election in 2012. So, too, will the winner of the 5th Congressional race.
"Anything is possible," Sager said. "I'm very proud of what our team put together. This was a learning experience. We're certainly not going to stop it now."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.