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Bellwether county or not, Pasco remains vital to election in Florida

Jeb Bush's old quote is branded in the minds of many of the county's political junkies: "As Pasco goes, so does the state of Florida."

It stems from Election Night in 2004. After the former governor saw Pasco's returns, he called his brother and told him he would win the state.

Today, the quote occupies a prominent spot on the Pasco Republicans' website. Ron Paul fans used the quote as a rallying cry for a straw poll a year ago.

But is it still true?

"It used to be a swing county," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "It's no longer considered, in my opinion, a bellwether or swing county."

Returns from the past few elections support Fasano's case. In 2008, Barack Obama carried Florida by a relatively hefty 3 percentage points. The margin was almost a mirror image in Pasco County. Two years ago, Rick Scott narrowly won the governor's mansion by 1 point. His margin in Pasco: nearly 9 points.

That wasn't always the case. Al Gore won Pasco by a mere 982 votes in 2000, portending the historically small edge in Florida for George Bush. As the president's brother noted four years later, Pasco's 2004 results weren't that far off from the statewide tally. Charlie Crist's blowout victory in the 2006 gubernatorial race was almost exactly matched by Pasco's results.

"Pasco obviously has a Republican advantage. It's come to that," said Tax Collector Mike Olson, the lone Democratic official elected countywide. "But if the Republicans are the favorites in Pasco County, I'm not sure that's going to hold true for the state of Florida."

Local Democrats say if they can hold down Mitt Romney's Pasco margins on Nov. 6, that could point to a good day for Obama. "We may not win the county, but we'll deliver Florida for the president," said party chairman Lynn Lindeman.

Even if Pasco has a slightly more red tint compared to Florida as a whole, those who want an early read on the results can look to Pasco for clues. Observers just have to account for the slight partisan lean.

"We are known for getting our results in super, super early," said Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley. "I don't want to jinx us, but we've been the first for the last eight years."

The changes don't mean Pasco is politically unimportant.

It's part of the vital Interstate 4 corridor that most analysts say will determine the election in Florida.

There are 120,000 registered Republicans in Pasco, compared to 107,000 Democrats. Both parties look to turn out their base voters, but they must also target the 81,000 people not registered with the two main parties.

"With the amount of independents we've got here, we've got to earn it," said Pasco GOP state committeeman Bill Bunting. "It's still a swing county."

Rob Marlowe, deputy mayor for New Port Richey, agreed with Bunting's assessment. He pointed to Pasco's diverse mix of residents, including transplants from the Midwest, which contains several key swing states.

"In many ways Pasco is the southernmost county in the state of Michigan," quipped Marlowe, a county Democratic chairman in the mid 1990s. "The people that I have talked to by and large seem to be fairly evenly split."

But other political observers — of both stripes — acknowledge there has been a shift in the past several years.

Republican political consultant Shawn Foster of Trinity said Pasco can no longer be considered a bellwether. He pointed to the influx of suburban families with higher incomes to Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel over the past decade. That shifted the political balance from Democratic retirees from up north, he said.

He noted a small drop in the county's median age over the past decade according to the 2010 Census. "That might not sound like much, but that definitely changes the focus."

There might be other factors besides migration. Two years ago, Pasco's above-average unemployment rate probably meant more voters were receptive to Gov. Scott's jobs message.

County Democrats also acknowledge the party infrastructure needs rebuilding after several years of losses at the local level.

"In certain areas of the state we hold the lead," Lindeman said. "In certain counties we don't hold the lead. This is one of those counties, so far. I'm going to change that."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Bellwether county or not, Pasco remains vital to election in Florida 10/20/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 20, 2012 12:28pm]
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