TALLAHASSEE — George Sheldon easily beat Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, Tuesday for the Democratic nomination for attorney general.
The double-digit victory by the veteran of Florida government ensures yet another proxy war on Obamacare.
In November, Sheldon faces Republican incumbent Pam Bondi, a contest that pits the state's most vocal critic of the Affordable Care Act against Sheldon, who left the federal agency implementing it.
"Help me give Pam Bondi the job she really wants," Sheldon told supporters Tuesday night at a Tallahassee wine bar. "And that's as an anchor of Fox News."
Within minutes of his victory, Bondi challenged him to a debate.
"The voters will have a clear choice between candidates in this election," Bondi said in a statement. "They deserve to hear directly from us."
Sheldon, amid congratulatory phone calls, had his answer.
"I'll clearly accept," he said. "I'll debate her five times if she's up for it."
Sheldon, 67, resigned last October from his $179,000 job as U.S. Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families to challenge Bondi.
Sheldon is familiar with the office he seeks, having worked as a deputy to Attorney General Bob Butterworth between 1999 and 2002. He followed Butterworth to the Department of Children and Families. In 2008, then-Gov. Charlie Crist tapped Sheldon to lead the agency.
To take on Bondi, Sheldon first had to fend off Thurston, 53, the state House Democratic leader.
Thurston announced his run for attorney general less than a week after Sheldon did, dashing Democrats' hopes of focusing on Bondi, who at that point had already raised $1.2 million.
The two Democrats represent different political eras.
Sheldon began an eight-year stint in the Florida House in 1974 when there were 93 Democrats and 27 Republicans.
Thurston was first elected to the Florida House in 2006. He now leads a caucus that is outnumbered 75 to 45.
But the men held nearly uniform views on issues. Sheldon said he couldn't think of anything the two disagreed on.
Gay marriage? Both support it. Florida's "stand your ground" law? Both would seek changes. Medical marijuana? Both support the proposed amendment legalizing it. Restoration of felons' rights? Both support it.
But the contest took a toll.
As of Tuesday, Sheldon had only $47,637 to spend against Bondi, who had $4.2 million.
"I'm not under any illusions," he said. "It's a tough race. But we'll have sufficient dollars to run a good grass roots campaign and a good air campaign, too."
Sheldon will get reacquainted with Crist on the campaign trail.
"This year, it's all Crist all the time," said Screven Watson, former Florida Democratic Party executive director. "Money is going to be tight because of that. If I'm George, I'm going to velcro myself to Charlie and go along for the ride."