TAMPA — After eight years representing a Republican stronghold, can Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham broaden his appeal enough to win countywide, where Democrats have the advantage?
That is the prime question facing Higginbotham's campaign this year, as the 60-year-old Plant City native left eastern Hillsborough's District 4 because of term limits to run for the countywide District 7 seat on the commission. And though Higginbotham romped in Tuesday's GOP primary, a closer look shows he has work to do in large swaths of Hillsborough to prevail in the Nov. 4 general election.
A geographic analysis of the results from Tuesday's District 7 primaries shows, not surprisingly, that Higginbotham drew strong, clustered support from east and south county neighborhoods. In large, populous chunks of Tampa, however, Higginbotham drew minimal support, something that gives Democratic primary winner Pat Kemp hope in a race in which she expects to be outgunned financially.
Of the 20 precincts that delivered the most votes for Higginbotham, 17 were in his traditional support centers — FishHawk Ranch, Sun City Center, Plant City, Riverview, Brandon and Valrico. Three outlier precincts were spread across South Tampa, including No. 123, the Tampa Garden Club on Bayshore Boulevard.
In November, however, there will not be three other Republicans running against him to siphon votes, Higginbotham pointed out.
"We enjoy support throughout the county, but I know I have a lot of work to do everywhere," he said.
Kemp won broader countywide support in her primary victory Tuesday. The 57-year-old lawyer and former chair of Hillsborough's Democratic Party drew most of her support from Tampa but also fared well in places such as Riverview, Thonotosassa and Sun City Center.
There are about 60,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Hillsborough, but the GOP has traditionally fared better at turnout in county races. But in this year's District 7 primaries Democrats outvoted Republicans, 53,147 to 49,995, a figure Kemp hopes signals a break in her party's turnout struggles.
"I think it's a good indication of what could happen in November," Kemp said. "It gives me a big lift moving forward."
Kemp is also counting on other lifts in November from Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist and Florida's medical marijuana ballot question, both of which she hopes drive Democrats to the polls.
According to University of South Florida political science professor Darryl Paulson, though, there is not a proven record of statewide races carrying local candidates into office. Voters in November casting ballots for Crist or medical marijuana won't necessarily also vote in a County Commission race.
"They might vote in the governor's race, but they're probably not familiar with County Commission and School Board races, so often times they'll probably just pass those by," Paulson said. "Local races will probably just come down to which candidate does a better job of turning out their base."
And that, in Higginbotham's mind, will play to his advantage.
"We'll be running this campaign like we have in years past," he said. "We've got a good story to tell. We just need to get out there and tell it."
Contact Will Hobson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. Follow @TheWillHobson.