TAMPA — The three Republicans running for state Senate District 17 could see their names moved to the November general election ballot open to Democratic and independent voters, according to a highly unusual scenario state officials have shared with local Democrats and one of the candidates.
The rare decision to open a previously closed party primary would be a consequence of the abrupt decision last week by the lone Democrat in the race, Wes Johnson, to abandon the election for "personal reasons."
Hillsborough and Pasco county Democrats have until today to find a replacement for Johnson on the ballot. That seems "unlikely," said Hillsborough County Democratic Party chairman Chris Mitchell.
If they do not? State law is unclear, except to say the Department of State has the authority to decide how to provide for "orderly" elections.
Mitchell said Division of Election attorneys have told party officials that moving the Republican primary to the general election ballot may be the most equitable way of treating all voters.
"Obviously, they don't want to disenfranchise all the (no-party) voters and Democrats," he said.
The three Republicans for the seat, which represents northwest Hillsborough and central and eastern Pasco, include political newcomer John Korsak, state Rep. John Legg and former state Rep. Rob Wallace. Sen. Jim Norman was the incumbent, but dropped out of the race.
Korsak said he spoke Wednesday afternoon with an attorney at the Division of Elections, who shared the idea. "He said that's the most likely scenario," said Korsak, who said he did not know that attorney's name.
Department of State spokesman Chris Cate did not specifically address the scenario in a statement released Wednesday.
"The Democratic Party has until tomorrow to nominate a candidate to fill their Senate 17 vacancy. No decisions have been made on what happens if the Democratic party chooses not to nominate a candidate because any decisions now would be premature," Cate wrote. "The fact is that the Senate 17 race has been certified as a closed primary and votes have already been cast in the election."
The scenario described by Mitchell and Korsak would come with plenty of questions. Early voting and absentee voting has already begun, for instance, meaning it would be unclear what would happen to the votes already cast by tens of thousands of District 17 Republicans.
Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley had not heard about the scenario from state officials. He noted that it's not unheard of for candidates to drop out of an election. What would be unusual, he said, is a party's failure to replace the candidate.
"They always find somebody," he said. "This is unchartered."
Korsak, who's trailing both Legg and Wallace in fundraising, said he would support such a decision. "Certainly it's fair," he said. "You can't have just registered Republicans choosing the next senator."
Wallace, who had not heard of the possibility, said he wasn't so sure about the fairness.
"To have a Republican primary being repeated because a Democrat dropped out, I don't understand that," he said.
Legg, who is considered the front-runner in the race, did not return a phone call Wednesday evening seeking comment.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.