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Pinellas politicking off to an early start for 2012 races

The days of a quiet off-year for elections have ended early in the Tampa Bay area.

Instead, political parties are preparing volunteers and communicating with activists, and some candidates for 2012 are politicking and raising money unusually early.

Republicans in two state Senate races in Pinellas and Pasco counties have raised tens of thousands of dollars, trying to get a jump on more would-be candidates. Redistricting has elevated maneuvering even more.

National Democrats already have begun targeting U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores. The 21-term U.S. representative spent the first three months of the year getting a bigger-than-normal start on his fundraising.

Even Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats — a Republican with no early challenger or redistricting threat — got into the act. In March, Coats floated a plan to win re-election and turn over his job to his chief deputy. Coats, who backed away from the ploy days later, is due to announce this month whether he'll run again.

"I think virtually every elected official is looking at what 2012 brings for them. … The dynamic is probably unlike anything we've seen since perhaps 2002," said lobbyist David Jolly, a former aide to Young.

So what's driving the early sparks?

Statewide campaigns for the U.S. Senate have already started. Republican activists are focused on defeating President Barack Obama in 2012. Democrats, still smarting from 2010 losses, are trying to recharge.

Political party activities began 11 months earlier than they did for the 2008 election, said Chet Renfro, treasurer and a key organizer for the Pinellas GOP. Three Republicans seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson have reached out to Renfro. Major races drove early efforts to set up e-mail lists of supporters and organize volunteer efforts.

"Certainly, statewide it is re-electing Bill Nelson and Barack Obama and certainly to make sure the districts are drawn fairly," said Democratic state committeeman Rick Boylan of St. Petersburg.

Unlike the last time districts were redrawn in 2002, two state constitutional amendments will change the standards for making congressional and state legislative districts.

In Pinellas, local Democratic and Republican officials say, population losses mean the county stands to lose at least one of its eight seats in the Florida House. A district likely to be shifted out of Pinellas is held by Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, who already represents more Pasco voters.

If a second district drops — or an incumbent lawmaker is drawn out of his district — the stakes get higher. For example, Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, lives blocks from the boundary from his current district. With Republicans in control of drawing district lines, there's a risk Kriseman would be cut out of his own district, said Paul Starr, chairman of the Pinellas Democrats' candidate planning.

"There are different people eyeing different possibilities. There's nothing really cast in stone. … A lot of them are being intentionally vague right now because of the redistricting," Starr said.

Redistricting could slice from the county's four Florida Senate members, too.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, is expected to be safe. But because of redistricting, the current west and beaches district is expected to encompass more of south Pinellas.

Complicating that, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, is leaving office due to term limits — prompting the most intense jockeying so far.

Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, and Seminole council member Leslie Waters, a former House member, have begun fundraising to replace Jones. While Frishe worked during the legislative session, for example, Waters politicked at the county GOP's monthly meeting last week.

"You can always tell who's running for office because they seem to show up at meetings," Renfro said.

Waters said she'd prefer not run such a long campaign. She filed six weeks after Frishe. She raised $1,000 to his $18,450 in a race both have eyed for years.

More and more, races require earlier starts, Frishe said.

But they aren't alone in their interest for the seat.

Everett Rice, a former Pinellas sheriff and House member, has been mentioned — catching party members' attention at a recent GOP meeting. Among Democrats, Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and former Rep. Janet Long of Seminole are considering a run.

Kriseman is mentioned, too.

Despite her November loss to Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, Long has kept a public profile, helping run events for St. Petersburg College and a Democratic women's group, the latter of which featured state party chairman Rod Smith.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, and East Pasco farmer Wilt Simpson, a Republican, are running for state Sen. Mike Fasano's seat, which, for now, includes west Pasco and north Pinellas.

Simpson doesn't live in the current boundaries. But he has raised more than $91,000 to Legg's $54,000 on the assumption the redrawn district will include his home.

"I think the reason nobody was surprised is because nobody knows how this redistricting is going to turn out," said Pasco state committeeman Bill Bunting.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him at twitter.com/decamptimes.

Pinellas politicking off to an early start for 2012 races 04/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 9:40pm]
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