Five points to ponder as Election Day approaches

Which incumbents are most at risk? Which political party is winning the turnout fight in early and mail ballots? What effect will the tea party movement have here?

And will the negative ads and mailers ever end?

There won't be any easy answers until the last vote is counted after polls close at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Here's a look at some key players and issues at stake in local races.

Incumbents carry bull's-eyes

For the Legislature, state Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, is fighting to stay in office against Republican Jeff Brandes in District 52. So is state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole, against Republican Larry Ahern in House District 51. Both districts are considered swing districts.

Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a Republican, has faced her most serious challenge since she joined the board in 2000. But District 4 in north Pinellas has 15,000 more Republicans than Democrats, an advantage for Latvala in her bid against Democrat Bob Hackworth.

In Hillsborough, longtime Tampa City Council members John Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena are fighting for their political futures in competitive County Commission races. Dingfelder served the past eight years on the council.

Saul-Sena has been a public presence for nearly 20 years, serving five four-year terms on the council. She's facing Republican County Commission incumbent Ken Hagan, an eight-year veteran of the board, on Tuesday.

State Sen. Charlie Justice hasn't found much of an audience for his message against long-term U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's penchant for earmarks. Young, an Indian Shores Republican and 20-term U.S. representative, wouldn't even show up to debate the St. Petersburg Democrat.

But there's a caveat: Voters this year are volatile, campaign experts say, so be ready for the unexpected.

Will the tea party movement spill over to local races?

People involved in tea party organizing largely focus on federal spending and taxes. But area Republicans have tried to tap the activities to help in key races.

"That's going to be part of the mystery of this year's campaign," said retired political scientist Darryl Paulson of St. Petersburg. "The tea party's focus has been on the congressional and statewide contests. … That's the $64,000 question that nobody knows."

Tea party activists in Hillsborough County have become a big voice in the debate over a referendum on a proposed 1-cent sales tax to pay for transportation improvements, including light rail. Sharon Calvert, who got her start as part of Glenn Beck's 912 Project, co-founded NoTaxForTracks.com to fight the penny sales tax.

The actual impact on campaign organizations, such as providing volunteer help, has been tough to gauge. Republicans suggest the tea party will help in close races by generating additional enthusiasm for their candidates.

Democrats, though, suggest it won't translate because national partisanship is less involved at the local level. It's also hard to know how many tea party voters weren't already voting Republican, said Mitch Kates, a Democrat who is a consultant on several Tampa Bay campaigns, including working for Amendment 4 supporters.

"I haven't really seen a lot of activity with the tea party in Pinellas," said Kates.

GOP gains early voting advantage

The Republican Party has outpaced Democrats by more than 6,500 voters in Hillsborough and more than 14,000 voters in Pinellas, according to early and mail ballot results.

Republicans have done it by surpassing the Democrats on their staple: early voting, which concludes this weekend. Especially in Pinellas, Republicans have inched up their share of the early and mail balloting. But those results don't necessarily define which candidates are selected, and more nonpartisan and third-party voters have shown up early, too.

Nearly 141,000 people already had voted in Pinellas as of Friday. More than 114,500 had voted in Hillsborough.

What will turnout be like at the polls?

For recent off-year elections with statewide races, voter turnout has ranged from 47 percent in 2006 to 66 percent in 1994, the last national Republican rush.

Voters this year may skew older, because fewer Democrats may turn out combined with an increase in conservative voters, Paulson said. That would give Republicans an advantage.

Obama: On the mind, not the ballot

President Barack Obama is far from Florida House Districts 51 and 52, and the Pinellas County Commission's District 4. But he's sure on the minds of the Republicans seeking votes there.

In a mailer, Latvala blasted Hackworth for good things he said about Obama in 2008. She suggested — at the expense of reality, Democrats say — that Hackworth would bring Obama's "liberal agenda" to Pinellas.

Dana Young, a Republican candidate for the District 57 state House seat that represents South Tampa, has linked her Democratic opponent Stacy Frank's support of a local transportation tax to Obama. One mailer calls it the Obama/Frank express.

"Her distortion of this issue by childishly portraying the president of the United States and me in the driver's seat of a light rail is just silliness," Frank said. She accuses Young of using national issues to avoid talking about problems facing state government, which has been dominated by Republicans for 12 years.

Republicans Brandes and Ahern have taken a similar tack in their Pinellas legislative races against incumbent Democrats Heller and Long. Brandes and the Republican Party of Florida sent a mailer lashing out at Obama on federal issues such as the stimulus — though the GOP-controlled Legislature took hundreds of millions from it.

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Five points to ponder as Election Day approaches 10/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 30, 2010 12:13am]

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