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November race will test sway of Ronda Storms' name recognition

TAMPA — State Sen. Ronda Storms thrashed Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner in this week's GOP primary by a margin seldom seen when an incumbent seeks re-election.

So she would seem to be a formidable favorite, after claiming 70 percent of the vote Tuesday, as she now takes on Democratic former state Rep. Bob Henriquez and two no-party candidates in the November general election.

But local political observers caution against reading too much into those results when handicapping the general election. Tuesday's outcome had much more to do with Turner's admission of sending porn to his human resources director than anything Storms did or said. And in a low-turnout Republican primary that tends to draw the most fervent partisans, that didn't play too well.

"I think the results from (Tuesday), especially how overwhelming they were, say that you could have put any monkey in the zoo in that race and they would have won," said Republican political consultant Chris Ingram.

That said, University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus said Storms indeed will be formidable.

Few Hillsborough County politicians have a name as well known as Storms. And she's been in the news a lot lately.

Not so for Henriquez, a Tampa Catholic High School football coach who has been out of office since 2006, leaving the Legislature after eight years due to term limits.

The general election will draw many voters who show up only every four years, care mostly about the choices for president, and may not know many of the candidates down the ballot.

MacManus predicted strong party-line voting in down-ticket contests in Florida this year with polls showing a tight race for president. And Hillsborough County is the proverbial microcosm of the macrocosm.

"That's where that kind of thing comes into play, where a sizable number of people don't know much about the candidates," MacManus said.

Other political observers say that name recognition is a double-edged sword for Storms. She is well-known, but her stances on issues, particularly when she was a Hillsborough County commissioner for eight years ending in 2006, draw strong feelings.

She is beloved among church-going social conservatives for her stances against things such as government funding for public television stations that carried programming with nudity. She also famously shut down a display of gay pride literature at one of the county's libraries and won support from fellow commissioners to ban public funding of gay pride events.

"In a general election where Democratic voters are turning out, where does Ronda go beyond her base?" asked Democratic political consultant Ana Cruz, a friend and supporter of Henriquez's. "Bob Henriquez will be a much tougher candidate to push around."

Storms says she intends to remain true to her socially conservative values. But she said she doesn't expect that they will come into play given that she's campaigning for an office that is largely ministerial in nature.

"I've been a person who has established enormous negative blowback for stating what I believe in," Storms said. "I still have those views, but they're not views that will come into play in this office."

She expects there will be a segment of voters who will not vote for her under any circumstances. She thinks she can convince more moderate voters that her values will come into play only in the sense that she will be honest and have a customer focus.

"Haters are going to be haters," Storms said. "I need to speak to people who say, 'I'm looking for someone who is a public servant, is responsive, and I don't have to worry about what she's doing in the off hours.' "

Henriquez has not attracted much attention since declaring his candidacy in May and facing no opposition from another Democrat. It's also not clear how much effect no-party candidates Rob Townsend and James DeMio might have on the outcome. Neither has raised any money, though DeMio has lent his campaign $30,000.

Henriquez so far has raised just under $26,000, though wallets should open for him now that his race is taking off. He'll need the money to remind people who he is: a football coach, a Princeton University graduate and someone who ran a government agency branch office for the Department of Children and Families that was twice the size of the Property Appraiser's Office.

Storms, by contrast, has a law degree and has taught high school English but has spent much of her adult working life in politics, setting policy. As of Friday, before this week's primary, records show she had about $63,000 in her treasury.

Henriquez says he hopes to make the choice for voters less of a political decision and more of a hiring decision.

"It's one thing to have high name ID," Henriquez said. "But I also believe she doesn't have any persuadables," meaning people on the fence that she can persuade to vote for her.

"And that's not a comfortable place to be in if you're running for elective office."

November race will test sway of Ronda Storms' name recognition 08/15/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 16, 2012 12:00am]
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