The Republican primary in the 5th Congressional District was supposed to be a David and Goliath story, with the underdog in the race facing even longer odds than the slingshot-wielding biblical hero.
To put it another way: no real chance at all.
Jason Sager, a former audio/visual engineer from Brooksville, filed to run against U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a popular incumbent who was expected to cruise to a fifth term representing a district that heavily favors Republicans.
Then Brown-Waite, facing health issues, asked Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent to run in her place. The pair announced their collusion minutes after the filing deadline in April, sparking the ire of many, including local Republicans who said they would have considered running had they known Brown-Waite was going to bow out.
On paper, the race should still be lopsided. Nugent, currently in the middle of his third term as sheriff, is well known in Hernando. And many voters in the seven other counties in the district probably know him as "that sheriff from Hernando who Ginny supports." Nugent got a late start compared to Sager, but has raised four times more money and has the congresswoman's network of supporters at his disposal.
But Sager, who lost his job in December 2008, has been campaigning full time for nine months with a strategy that he says has focused on the sprawling community of the Villages on the district's northern end. He is a talented orator with plenty of tea party support and hopes to tap into the anti-incumbent mood to defeat Nugent, whom some view as a Brown-Waite proxy. From the start, Sager has lambasted Nugent as the establishment candidate.
The race turned nasty earlier this month as Nugent went on the offensive, questioning Sager's voter record, his loyalty to the GOP and his membership in a controversial, right-wing protest group.
Handicapping and mudslinging aside, voters have a choice between two Republicans whose differences go beyond style, background and experience. The winner goes on to face Democrat Jim Piccillo, a 36-year-old small-business consultant from Land O'Lakes who faces no primary opposition
Sager, 36, has a few titles for himself: constitutionalist conservative, Jeffersonian Republican and tea party standard bearer.
Regardless of the title, his stance is the same: The federal government, enabled by entrenched political interests in both parties, has overstepped the bounds set by the Constitution and needs to be neutered. Sager says he decided to challenge Brown-Waite because she did not always work toward that goal.
"My party has failed," he told the Times editorial board recently. "I am a Republican because I am a defender of the republican principles that are in that document, the true principles of a limited government. We only gave certain powers to the federal government, and the rest is left to the states and the people."
The leave-it-to-the-states stance translates to views that some might see as extreme: eliminating the U.S. departments of education, energy and environmental protection, for example. In Sager's view, the federal government should stick to basics like defense, commerce regulation and the mail system. The rest, he says, is just wasteful bureaucracy that sucks money from the states' ability to govern.
Despite his status as Brown-Waite's hand-picked successor, Nugent seeks to cast himself as a Washington outsider, too. He touts his popularity as a sheriff and says he's eager to take the opportunity Brown-Waite gave him, even though he didn't envision himself in Congress six months ago.
"What I've seen over the years and where we are today has just really made me angry, the lack of regard that folks in Congress have for the rest of us," Nugent said. "The lack of listening to what people want and really just jamming stuff down our throats. It's a representative form of government. I really think you ought to listen to the people who elect you."
Despite differences, they share some views
As conservatives, the two candidates share plenty of the same views.
Both men take every opportunity to criticize the new health care law they derisively call Obamacare. They say they would work to de-fund it in the short term and repeal it in the long term.
They pan the federal stimulus plan and the bailouts of banks and private companies. They both oppose the cap-and-trade energy policy, saying it would put additional burden on taxpayers' budgets. And they support Arizona's controversial law requiring police officers to ask for proof of citizenship when they suspect someone is in the country illegally.
Sager wants other states to follow Arizona's lead since the federal government isn't going to enforce its own immigration laws. Nugent says he would rather the federal government take up that enforcement so other states don't have to go the Arizona route. Both men say they won't support an amnesty program, but Sager wants to immediately begin to deport all undocumented immigrants. Nugent says that's impractical, citing the high cost and already overburdened immigration officials. The border needs to be secured, and the process to get a work visa needs to be streamlined, he said.
Sager says Medicare and Social Security are unconstitutional and favors a plan that would at least partially phase out both programs over the next few generations so current beneficiaries and those who have paid into the programs are not affected. He criticized Nugent last week for sending a mailer that misrepresented Sager's views by warning voters that Sager would jeopardize benefits.
"He's just using scare tactics, which is absolutely deplorable," Sager said.
Nugent said he would push to cut waste and fraud in Medicare and could support raising the Social Security retirement age.
"We need to be realistic," he said.
Nugent, whose eldest son, Ryan, is an Army captain and served a tour in Afghanistan, said he supports America's current strategy to pursue terrorists in that country. Sager agreed, but both men say the mission there needs to be clarified. Nugent said he has concerns about nation building, and Sager said he outright opposes that goal.
States rights include the power to drill for oil in water off their shores, Sager said.
"And I know that's a politically incorrect thing to say, especially with what's going on in our gulf," he said. "It's horrifying, but accidents happen. We will recover from this, but the federal government is failing miserably."
Sager has criticized the moratorium put in place after the Deepwater Horizon spill and has chided Nugent for trying to take two stances at once. Nugent has said he doesn't support a moratorium, but would consider supporting drilling again once regulators figure how to prevent a similar disaster. He supports the current 125-mile buffer for Florida.
Nugent said he supports financial reform, especially for the derivatives market, but said he would not have supported the bill recently passed by Congress, calling it overregulation. Sager hasn't read the bill, but says he recognizes the need for some regulation.
Sager supports the so-called fair tax, which would remove all taxes in favor of a national sales tax. Nugent says he would consider it.
Both candidates say they are strong supporters of the Second Amendment. But Nugent has had to clarify his stance. In 2004, he was among law enforcement officials who signed a petition to continue the ban on assault rifles. He says he supports the ban on fully automatic but not semiautomatic weapons.
Both opponents are opposed to gay marriage, but the issue presents a conundrum for Sager, a Christian who usually invokes God during his campaign speeches. He says let each state decide.
Sager saw a need to run for Congress seat
Sager can recall his response when someone said he should run for Congress. He laughed.
Earlier this year, he founded the Hernando 912 project, a local chapter of a national group founded by conservative television and radio personality Glenn Beck. Beck has said the aim of the group is to promote personal responsibility and limited government. Critics call it a divisive group that promotes theocracy.
The chapter invited Brown-Waite to speak last October.
"When she came in telling us the Constitution was a living document, that the Supreme Court had ruled that there are very few limitations to Congress … you could have heard a pin drop," Sager recalled.
After the meeting, a few people asked Sager why he couldn't challenge Brown-Waite. He was unemployed, having lost his job as a home electronics specialist for Sound Advice. After four days of praying and discussions with his wife, Stephanie, he filed papers to run.
Sager was born in Dunedin and moved to Hernando County as a child. His father worked as a human resources manager, and his mother stayed home until Sager and his brother got older. Sager spent four years in the Navy. From 1997 to 2000, he worked as a manufacturing engineer with Sparton Electronics, east of Brooksville. For most of the next decade, he worked at several companies, specializing in home theater design and installation.
The couple moved to New York City in 2000 and stayed for five years before returning to Florida. In the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Sager says he saw a group of young antiwar protestors dragging an American flag on the ground, blaming the country's policy decisions for the tragedy.
"Since that day, I have dedicated my personal life to find why this happened, and how did we get here," he said.
In 2003, while still in New York, Sager joined the Protest Warriors, a right-wing group formed to counter antiwar protests. The group was based in Texas and would come to New York on occasion, infiltrating events to present a conservative view. Sager said he mainly videotaped demonstrations and sent the tapes to media outlets.
About the same time, Sager became a leader of a conservative group called Communists for Kerry. Members would don costumes and attend protests and rallies of progressive groups, holding up signs espousing communist ideals. The goal was to expose the "rampant communism" in the Kerry campaign, recalled Sager, who dressed up like Argentine Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara.
He says he stayed in both groups for about a year.
Last week, Nugent's campaign sent out a press release questioning Sager's ties to the Protest Warriors. The release included two posters pulled from the group's website that bear slogans such as "Black children belong in black schools. Say no to vouchers!"
Sager said he had never carried or even seen signs with such slogans, and he called Nugent's tactics a smear campaign designed to label him as a racist.
Photos on the Protest Warrior website from the Republican National Committee convention in New York City from Aug. 29, 2004, show someone holding the voucher sign. Photos on the Communists for Kerry site show that group was active at the convention on the same day.
Sager said he did not attend the Protest Warrior event or see the group that day.
"What I find very upsetting is conservatives are now chewing up and spitting out their own activists," he said.
Nugent had no intent of running for Congress
Nugent figured that his political career would end in 2012 with his last term as sheriff.
Born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, Nugent was one of three boys. His father did shift work in a steel mill; his mother kept the home. Nugent served in the Illinois Air National Guard for six years, worked his way up to sergeant in the Romeoville Police Department, then joined the Hernando County Sheriff's Office in 1984. He was elected to his first term as sheriff in 2000.
He and his wife, Wendy, have two sons in the Army; the third is in the Army Reserves.
Nugent is active in the community. He is a charter member of the Spring Hill Rotary Club and currently serves as vice president of the Dawn Center's board of directors.
His tenure as sheriff has generally been unmarred by scandal, though there have been bumps.
Last year, Nugent butted heads with county commissioners over the size of his department's budget, something Sager has used to question the sheriff's claims of fiscal conservatism. Nugent's budget has grown by more than 100 percent in the last decade, nearly twice the rate of growth in population and the Consumer Price Index. He often counters that by pointing out that he returned $2 million from his budget to the county's general fund last year. And he makes no apologies for using his budget to provide what he calls a safe level of service to the county.
Last March, Brown-Waite called Nugent telling him she planned to retire and wanted him to run instead. He maintains that he didn't make up his mind until a week before the filing deadline in April. He makes no apologies for not announcing his intentions at that point.
"Once I made that decision, I'm not going to go out and wave a flag and say I want more people to challenge me," Nugent said.
Nugent has dismissed calls by Sager and Piccillo to resign as sheriff since he's running for Congress. If he resigns by next month, there could be a special election for the seat. Instead, if elected, Nugent will recommend a successor for appointment by the governor.
As he mounts his congressional bid, Nugent also is tackling the mammoth task of taking over the Hernando County Jail, which had been run by a private contractor for more than two decades. He insists that he has kept his promise to limit his campaign activity mostly to evenings and weekends, and has canceled vacations to make time. He concedes that he sometimes takes small chunks of time off during the weekday for campaign activities.
"But never at the expense of this agency," he said.
Other than citing Brown-Waite's vote for the federal Cash for Clunkers program and her staunch support for the fair tax, Nugent has offered few specifics when asked how his views differ from hers. He said he would take a lower key, less confrontational approach.
"I try not to pick fights with people," he said. "I'm much more about trying to talk to somebody and get them to my side rather than, you know, a hit-them-in-the-head kind of approach, and it usually works."
Nugent has healthy lead in campaign funds
Nugent brought in about $145,000 in campaign contributions by the end of the last disclosure period on June 30 and had about $114,000 on hand, campaign finance records show.
He garnered nearly $87,000 from individuals. Among the more prominent names are Brooksville attorney Tom Hogan; Debora and William Bachschmidt, president and vice president, respectively, of DAB Constructors of Inglis, and H. Gary Morse, chief executive officer of the Villages.
But Nugent also raked in nearly $48,000 from political action committees, most of them affiliated with sitting members of Congress other than Brown-Waite, whose committees gave Nugent at least $7,874 by the end of June.
Nugent, for example, accepted $5,000 from ERICPAC, the committee of Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, $2,000 from the committee of Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, and $1,000 from the committee of Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama.
Sager called the gifts an attempt by the "Washington elite" to "select our next congressional representative for us." Nugent counters that most of his money came from individuals. The PAC donations, he maintains, simply show that like-minded members of Congress are behind him.
"It buys absolutely nothing," he said. "What it does do is show they support my belief system."
Sager's report shows $33,271 in individual contributions as of June 30. He says he would accept money from the GOP, but not special interest groups, if victorious in the primary.
Nugent has drawn endorsements from the Florida Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police and from former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who said the sheriff will take a tough stance on illegal immigration.
The fledgling Hernando County tea party supports Sager, and he handily won straw polls of the East Pasco Tea Party Patriots and the Tri-County Tea Party, which includes the Villages. Predictably, he has the backing of the Tampa 912 Project.
Sager acknowledges some of his ideas to reduce government will take years, even generations to accomplish. But the more immediate goal, he said, is to prevent the government from growing even larger.
"I will never, ever compromise the principles that I have," he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.