HUDSON — For nearly two weeks, it looked like east Pasco farmer Wilton Simpson would walk into the state Senate unopposed.
That changed with a phone call Thursday.
State Democratic Party officials were looking for someone to run against the Republican with a boatload of campaign cash and a long list of endorsements. They got in touch with Matt Murphy, a Democrat running for County Commission. He called Joshua Smith of Hudson.
Smith, 22, takes education classes at night at the University of South Florida. During the day, he's a substitute teacher at Hudson Middle School. He told Murphy he didn't have the cash to pay the qualifying fee. Murphy told him not to worry.
"I said, 'Yeah, it's a perfect opportunity to get my foot in the door,' " said Smith, who supports higher teacher pay and opposes linking salaries to student test scores. "At the very least, the Democrats of Pasco have somebody representing them."
Smith filed the paperwork Friday to officially qualify for the ballot. He faces long odds. Simpson, 45, has been a major GOP donor for years and has raised $220,000 through March. He'll likely announce another big haul in his July fundraising report.
Simpson has sent several mail pieces to Republican voters throughout the district and released two television commercials, the latest featuring an endorsement from Attorney General Pam Bondi. District 18 — which includes west Pasco, the Dade City area, Hernando County and half of Sumter — is considered a safe Republican seat.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said incoming Senate minority leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale made a push to recruit more Democrats in seats seen as out of reach. But Fasano predicted limited campaign cash means party officials would continue to focus on close races.
"There's no question," he said. "Wilton Simpson will be the next state senator from District 18."
Murphy, the Democratic activist, acknowledged the odds: "I don't think (Simpson will) be too worried. He seems like a pretty honorable guy. He'll be fine with that district having a choice in November."
Simpson lost a major primary challenger two weeks ago when state Rep. John Legg, R-Trinity, decided to run in the adjacent Senate District 17. That move avoided a potentially bloody primary, and many politicos expected Simpson to take office unopposed.
Simpson said he will now recalibrate his strategy for a general election. He said he wouldn't alter his message to appeal to Democrats and independents.
"I'm going to continue to talk about what's important," he said. "I don't think it's going to be just a straight R or D race."
Though it's remarkable that a first-time candidate is such an overwhelming favorite in a race without an incumbent, Simpson is no political rookie. The well-connected owner of a Trilby egg farm and a general contracting company has donated to campaigns for years and forged relationships with top officials.
Observers say he's run a meticulous race, lining up support from politicians and business owners, working political gatherings and raising a formidable war chest.
"Has he scared off opponents? Possibly," said County Commissioner Ted Schrader, a fellow east Pasco resident. "He's just paid attention to the details."
Had Smith not filed by Friday's deadline, Simpson would've faced token opposition from write-in candidate Katherine Barnette of Brooksville. The 21-year-old Florida State University student is the daughter of Tom Barnette, who owns Euro-American Tours. He is included on a list of Hernando County supporters released by the Simpson campaign.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.