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In days of anger, state lawmakers feel lucky to dodge the '08 ballot

Ed Hooper is lucky, and he knows it.

The first-term Republican state legislator from Clearwater is headed back to Tallahassee for two more years, not with a mandate from North Pinellas voters as much as a free pass. No one challenged him.

Hooper is one of 39 uncontested legislative candidates (33 in the House, six in the Senate). Nine others face only write-in or minor-party opposition, so they're just as safe.

Hooper knows that to be an incumbent running for re-election in 2008 is to be a sitting duck for voters fed up with gasoline prices, taxes, housing foreclosures and shrinking balances on retirement accounts.

"People are mad and they're not sure exactly why. They're just mad," Hooper said. "When people get mad, change becomes the option they prefer. I'm glad not to be on the ballot."

To have one-third of the 120 seats on this year's ballot decided without a vote is a deeply troubling sign. But it's nothing new. It was this way long before term limits kicked in eight years ago.

The low-key Hooper is not exactly invincible. He won the District 50 seat two years ago with 55 percent of the vote.

But he hasn't done anything to rile a majority of his constituents, and it's not easy taking out an incumbent.

Eight other Tampa Bay legislators won uncontested, including the venerable Republican Sen. Dennis Jones of Treasure Island and a likely future House speaker, Republican Rep. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel.

Weatherford will start his second term without ever having his name appear on a ballot.

"You'd rather be lucky than good," Weatherford said. "I hope it's because people think I'm doing a good job."

Some others weren't so lucky, but they would rather not remind voters of their experience. Entrenched but wary incumbents such as state Sens. Jeff Atwater and J.D. Alexander are sending out campaign mailers that omit the word "re-elect." The word can amount to a bull's-eye in a year of widespread voter frustration, and Barack Obama's potential to draw a massive Democratic turnout that swamps a vulnerable down-ballot Republican.

Weatherford, already designated by his peers to be speaker in 2012 if Republicans retain control, cited "12 to 15" House seats now held by Republicans that will be tough to defend this fall. On the list are Peter Nehr in Tarpon Springs, John Legg in Port Richey, Rob Schenck in Spring Hill, Adam Hasner in Delray Beach, Carl Domino in Jupiter and Ellyn Bogdanoff in Fort Lauderdale.

"All the races down there will be tough," Weatherford said of South Florida, an expensive place to buy campaign ads and an area of hyperactive voter registration for Democrats.

So while those challenged incumbents spend a scorching summer shaking hands, raising money and worrying, Weatherford and Hooper can relax.

Hooper's toughest decision is deciding which local charities will receive his unspent campaign money.

People are angry, but they won't be able to take it out on Ed Hooper.

"It's going to be interesting to see how people vent their discontent at the polls," Hooper said.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

In days of anger, state lawmakers feel lucky to dodge the '08 ballot 07/25/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 27, 2008 7:20pm]
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