Bill Bunting, the face of Pasco's Republican Party for the past decade, comfortably parried a challenge to his power Tuesday night.
Bunting earned another four-year term as state committeeman with a 10-point margin over former County Commissioner Steve Simon. But the victory could leave lingering divisions in the party, especially among critics who disagree with Bunting's brash leadership style.
"We have got to bridge those gaps," said Wilton Simpson, a state Senate candidate from Trilby who can serve as a mediator between Bunting and his chief critic, Sen. Mike Fasano. "I think the vast majority of those wounds will heal over the next 30 days."
Simpson calls himself a "big tent Republican" and said the tent is big enough for Bunting fans and those who support Fasano, who cruised in his own bid for the state House on Tuesday. Simpson acknowledged the two will probably never be good friends, but said, "I would like to see Bill and Mike be able to patch things up."
Fasano and Bunting hit on similar themes as they assessed the state of the Pasco GOP the day after the primary.
"I don't think Bill Bunting and I will ever agree on everything," Fasano said. "With that said, it is important that whatever differences we have be put aside so Republicans can be successful in November."
Said Bunting: "We've got to bring the party together. We've got to welcome people that are coming on board."
Lost in the drama of the state committeeman race — some estimate that tens of thousands of dollars were spent in this campaign for an unpaid party position — is Sandy Graves' victory in the state committeewoman campaign. She has been a critic of Bunting in the past but will now be included in the party hierarchy when she takes over her post in December.
But some of the campaign's attacks are still fresh.
Fasano is smarting from an open letter penned by Pasco GOP Chairman Randy Maggard that called on Fasano to switch parties.
The letter also suggested — with no justification — that Fasano would serve as the running mate for former Gov. Charlie Crist if he runs for his old job as a Democrat in 2014.
The county party also donated $5,000 to Fasano's state House opponent, Jim Mathieu. Fasano won that race with 83 percent of the vote.
"The county party, led by Randy Maggard with about 100 other people, spent a lot of money from their coffers to defeat me," said Fasano. "They were unsuccessful. Not only were they unsuccessful, they were extremely unsuccessful. They may want to take a look at that before he considers in the future suggesting somebody should switch their party."
Fasano added: "The chairman needs to focus in on getting Republicans elected in November — not, as some would say, eating their own."
Maggard was traveling Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.
Bunting pointed out that one campaign flier accused him of "splintering the party" and said he spent big on "lavish parties" and unneeded travel. He said the bulk of Maggard's letter simply defended the party against those attacks.
"The mailers came from Fasano, from a group he was supporting," Bunting said. "He was attacking the party and Randy responded in kind."
Asked if it was time for he and Fasano to bury the hatchet, Bunting said, "I've got no hatchet to bury."
Two years ago, Fasano resigned from the Pasco Republican Executive Committee under pressure from Bunting and Maggard. They were upset with Fasano's support of Crist's independent bid for the U.S. Senate.
Bunting on Wednesday said the idea of Fasano re-joining the Republican Executive Committee "probably will come up in conversation."
"No one person is going to make that decision," he said. "It's a leadership decision. And it isn't even just the leadership, it's the (executive) committee."
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.