Voters have given new four-year terms to County Commissioners Jack Mariano and Ted Schrader, who both survived close re-election campaigns on Tuesday.
Both races were determined by primary voters because the campaigns only included Republican candidates.
In a third race, former School Board member Kathryn Starkey easily won a five-person GOP primary to replace Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who declined to run for an eighth term. Starkey faces a Democratic opponent in November.
Mariano held off a challenge from first-time candidate Bill Gunter to eke out a third term by a 680 votes out of more than 45,000 votes cast.
"I don't care who I'm going to tick off, I'm going to do the right thing for you and everybody in here ... put it in the bank," Mariano told hundreds of supporters Tuesday night at his victory party at Kickin' Wing.
Gunter, a New Port Richey minister, announced his bid just days before the qualifying deadline. But he quickly lined up support from many in Pasco's business community who were upset with Mariano. That gave him relative financial parity while challenging an incumbent.
Mariano weathered a barrage of attack ads funded by a Tallahassee political committee. Mariano denounced the ads as coming from a shadowy group with big-pocketed backers.
"It would have been an awful shame" if those negative ads had worked, Mariano said Tuesday night.
He relied on support from pockets of voters in the county, such as Aqua Utilities customers who appreciated his work against a major rate increase. He also earned populist support by leading the crusade against parking and youth sports fees at many county parks enacted in 2010.
Schrader survived a big-money campaign from Zephyrhills citrus grower Ron Oakley by taking 37 percent of more than 46,000 votes cast. Oakley and a third candidate, GOP activist Rachel O'Connor, each received 31 percent. Schrader earns a fourth term, and he said it will be his last on the commission.
Both men are from prominent east Pasco citrus families, and Oakley had even contributed to Schrader in past elections. The race was largely positive for nearly a year, but the tone turned sour with two weeks left when Oakley released a flier attacking Schrader's record on taxes. That was followed by attacks highlighting development decisions that benefitted Schrader's family.
"This is by far the most intense campaign that I have been in," said Schrader, who courted votes in Lutz until polls closed at 7 p.m. "Fortunately the voters have allowed me the opportunity to continue to work for them for another four years."
Oakley far outspent his rivals, with a $242,000 war chest that included nearly $175,000 from his own bank account. Schrader raised just more than $100,000 from various sources. O'Connor raised $21,000, two-thirds of which she gave her own campaign.
Starkey emerged from a crowded Republican primary in the open District 3 race, earning a spot on the Nov. 6 general election ballot against Democrat Matt Murphy.
Starkey garnered 43 percent of the more than 29,000 votes cast in her race. Her next closest challenger, Chris Gregg, took 18 percent.
"I think we ran a really good, clean, hardworking campaign," she said while watching returns at the Lodge at Wilderness Lake Preserve in Land O'Lakes. "I ran on experience, my business background and my commitment to the community, and that's what I'm going to run on in the general."
Rounding out the field were Karen King (14 percent), Randy Evans (14 percent) and Joshua Griffin (10 percent).
Starkey had the clear financial edge, with a $59,000 campaign account that topped the totals of her four challengers combined. She also faced the most political attacks, with one challenger calling her a Republican In Name Only and another skewering her because she lives outside of District 3.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.