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Democrat makes late bid to challenge Wilton Simpson for state Senate seat

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 llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Other candidates who made the ballot:

• U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, is running for re-election in District 12, which includes all of Pasco and portions of north Pinellas and northwest Hillsborough. He faces Jonathan Snow, D-Tarpon Springs, and two no-party candidates, John Russell of Dade City and Paul Elliott of Tampa.

• Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, will face Rep. John Legg, R-Trinity in a four-man GOP primary for Senate District 17. Other Republicans include former Rep. Rob Wallace of Tampa and John Korsak of Tampa. The winner of the primary faces Wes Johnson, a Democrat from Tampa.

• Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is running for House District 36 against Pasco GOP vice chairman Jim Mathieu of Port Richey and Michael Kennedy, a Republican from Hudson. Only registered Republicans can vote, thanks to write-in Joe Verola of Port Richey.

• Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, faces Strother Hammond of Land O'Lakes in a GOP primary in District 37. That race is also open only to Republican voters because Timothy Harris of Land O'Lakes qualified as a write-in.

• House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, won re-election without opposition to House District 38.

• Clerk of Courts Paula O'Neil, a Republican from Hudson, will face no-party candidate Roberta Cutting of Zephyrhills.

• Both Property Appraiser Mike Wells, a Republican from Dade City, and Tax Collector Mike Olson, a Democrat from New Port Richey, will face opposition. Wells faces fellow Republican Walter Price of Land O'Lakes. The winner will face Alison Newlon, a Democrat from San Antonio. Olson faces Ed Blommel, a Republican from San Antonio.

• Republican Sheriff Chris Nocco faces fellow Republicans Roger Fortney and Maurice Radford. The winner will face 2008 Democratic nominee Kim Bogart.

• A three-person GOP primary for schools superintendent includes incumbent Heather Fiorentino, former Secretary of State Kurt Browning and Kenneth Benson of New Port Richey. Only registered Republicans can vote because of two write-in candidates: former County Commissioner Ed Collins and Kathy Lambert. Lambert said she is making the longshot bid to give Democrats a choice: "We've had the Republicans screw around with our school system long enough already."

• Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, a Republican from New Port Richey, won re-election without opposition.

• Incumbent County Commissioner Ted Schrader, a Republican from San Antonio, faces Ron Oakley of Zephyrhills and Rachel O'Connor of Wesley Chapel in a Republican primary. Because no Democrats or no-party candidates qualified for the seat, all registered voters can cast a ballot in that election.

• Five Republicans are vying for the open District 3 County Commission race to replace retiring Ann Hildebrand: Randy Evans, Chris Gregg, Josh Griffin, Karen King and Kathryn Starkey. The winner will face Matt Murphy, D-New Port Richey.

• County Commissioner Jack Mariano, a Republican from Hudson, faces Bill Gunter, a Republican from New Port Richey, in District 5. That race is also open to all registered voters.

• School Board member Joanne Hurley of Land O'Lakes will face Don Stephenson of Land O'Lakes in a nonpartisan race for District 2. Fellow board member Alison Crumbley won re-election without opposition in District 4.

Democrat makes late bid to challenge Wilton Simpson for state Senate seat 06/08/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 8, 2012 9:08pm]
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