Democrat Amanda Murphy won a special election to the Florida House on Tuesday, claiming the west Pasco seat vacated by popular Republican Mike Fasano, who broke with his party's leaders to endorse her.
Unofficial returns showed Murphy capturing 50.8 percent of the vote to defeat Republican Bill Gunter.
"Tonight the big battle starts. I have big shoes to fill, and this district expects someone that's going to take care of them," Murphy said from a victory party at the Boulevard Beef & Ale in New Port Richey.
Murphy, 43, is a financial adviser for Raymond James making her first run for office.
Gunter, 43, is a Presbyterian minister who had the county's most powerful leaders and a Tallahassee-funded war chest behind him.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, future Speaker Richard Corcoran, Sheriff Chris Nocco and schools superintendent Kurt Browning were among the prominent Republicans helping his candidacy.
But it was Fasano's backing that mattered most. After vowing to stay neutral in the race, Fasano revealed he voted absentee for Murphy and urged others to support her as well. Then, in a television appearance Friday, he formally endorsed her.
"He was a huge swing in the votes," Murphy said of Fasano. "He really pulled in the (independent voters) and Republicans too, because they believe in him and believe he is an honest person."
The election was set up when Fasano resigned in August to become Pasco's tax collector.
A onetime stalwart Republican, Fasano burnished his bipartisan appeal in recent years, often to the ire of GOP leaders.
He backed Charlie Crist's independent run for the U.S. Senate over Republican nominee Marco Rubio in 2010, and earlier this year called for Medicaid's expansion in Florida under the Affordable Care Act.
Gunter came up short by just 305 votes. He called Murphy to congratulate her at about 8 p.m.
"I've been knocked down before. I always get back up," Gunter, a former Florida Gator, told about 100 backers at Catches Waterfront Grille in Port Richey. "I've lost football games. I've lost a lot of things in my life and I always come back around, and so I believe that the future's bright."
About 20 percent of the district's 94,000 voters cast ballots. The narrow margin wasn't close enough to trigger a recount, elections chief Brian Corley said.
The district's Democrats hold a slight edge in registrations over Republicans, but with more than 21,000 voters listed as "no party affiliation," the outcome was anything but certain. Murphy said she knocked on "at least a thousand doors" and made hundreds of calls to get her message across.
But Murphy faced strong opposition in Gunter. The Republican collected tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from Tallahassee interests.
Between the two campaigns, more than a half-million dollars was raised, but Gunter raked in nearly three times as much as Murphy.
The source of Gunter's funding made him a frequent target in political ads and mailers that tried to link him to special interests. He also withstood withering criticism from Fasano, who enjoyed wide bipartisan appeal.
Fasano attended Murphy's party and tweeted, after her victory was sealed, "The little guy and gal spoke tonight. Let's hope Tallahassee hears them."
Murphy will fill the remaining year of Fasano's term. The Democrat said she wants to focus on repealing the nuclear cost recovery fee charged by Duke Energy, lowering insurance rates and restoring school funding.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.