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Pinellas Democratic Party faces an uphill battle in November's election

Democrats outnumber Republicans on Pinellas County voter rolls.

Despite that advantage, the county's most popular party may find itself losing ground after the Nov. 2 general election.

Several factors may be to blame, starting with Democrats who gave up seats to seek other offices — and now face uphill tasks.

State Sen. Charlie Justice decided to run for longtime U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's seat, opening a state Senate district that was a big battleground in 2006. Justice, D-St. Petersburg, gambled on Young, R-Indian Shores, not running again.

Then, Pinellas County School Board member Nina Hayden decided to run for Justice's seat against well-known Republican and former state Sen. Jack Latvala, opening up a board seat she had just won in 2008.

Now, both of their campaigns have staggered against their Republican foes.

And Hayden's board seat, though nonpartisan, will be taken by Terry Krassner, a Republican who snared the seat in last week's primary.

Republicans also are keying on two House races in Pinellas to unseat Democrats in possible swing districts.

"The things we've been talking about like fiscal conservatism, those things are on the minds of people," said Republican Larry Ahern, who is seeking to oust state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole.

Add to that voter anxiety over the Obama administration and things are less rosy for Democrats than in 2008, when they grew to outnumber GOP voters in the county for the first time in a quarter century.

"The climate is somewhat different this year because there's national issues that seem to come down to state levels that one must deal with," said state Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, the other GOP target.

Key House races

What made Long and Heller targets?

Long's District 51 has 4,000 more Republicans than Democrats. In Heller's District 52, Democrats have only 1,600 more voters.

The potential for close races is there, though Democrats — who had rallies to muster support over the weekend — dismiss the challenges.

"I think Heller and Long are quite secure. They both have been around a while and they both have a good campaign team. I think they'll be good," said Rich Piper, president of the Largo/Mid-Pinellas Democratic Club. "I think it's mostly talk."

Long's ability to attract Republicans — the party tried to recruit her in 2008 — gives her a better chance than Heller at re-election, said former Pinellas Republican Party chairman Paul Bedinghaus.

A late candidate against Heller, Republican businessman Jeff Brandes, quickly gained state party help. The Republican Party of Florida has provided him with at least $30,700 of in-kind, or "soft" money, to try to best Heller, who has crossover appeal he intends to use, too.

But Ahern, a pool contractor, hasn't received the same party support against Long, though he expects to get a state party field staffer and hasn't given up hopes for money. Ahern blamed it on the party's focus on losing gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum.

Long also has received Democratic Party "soft money" support, and also has raised $126,000. That amounts to four times the contributions Ahern has received.

And money trouble could become more pronounced if wounds don't heal after Rick Scott's win against McCollum in the hard-hitting Republican governor's primary.

"Rick Scott can say, 'I'm going to fund my campaign on my own,' but the rest will say, 'What about the rest of us?' " Bedinghaus said.

Hope in Hackworth

On the flip side, chances of picking up victories over Jack Latvala or Young look dim.

For example, Justice's latest campaign finance report shows he had $23,000 on hand. Young reported $641,000.

Hayden hasn't mustered a Tweet about her campaign in weeks.

County Commission candidate Bob Hackworth's chances against 10-year incumbent Republican Susan Latvala appear to be the best of any Democratic challenger, Piper said.

Susan Latvala enters the general election after a rough primary. Hackworth promises to continue a critique of her "failed" leadership, seeking to capture independents and Republicans who voted for her primary election rivals.

But county Republican chairman J.J. Beyrouti and Latvala, former wife of Jack Latvala, said she won't need party money in her bid against Hackworth.

In his case, Hackworth is part of a party that has raised $68,000 for this election cycle, roughly a fifth of the money collected by the Pinellas Republican Party.

The Democratic Party's best shot is a coordinated "Campaign for Accountability" involving statewide candidates, and working with the grass roots group Organizing for America, said county party chairman Ramsay McLauchlan. The effort could give Justice, Hayden and others a bump for their campaigns.

Democrats also will try to redirect the negative mood that voters have for national Democrats by noting that Republicans were in control during recent scandals that dogged Tallahassee — not them.

David DeCamp can be reached at or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas Democratic Party faces an uphill battle in November's election 08/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 30, 2010 9:16am]
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