SPRING HILL — In a surprise announcement, U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent said Monday that he will not seek re-election for his heavily Republican District 11 seat and immediately threw his support behind longtime chief of staff, Justin Grabelle.
"After five years of living out of a suitcase … the tug of being apart from family has just become too great," Nugent, a Spring Hill Republican, said in a statement from his office.
Nugent's 2014 Democratic opponent, Dave Koller, who has filed to run for the seat next year, called the move "another coronation," referring to Nugent's election in 2010.
Nugent, 64, qualified for that year's race just minutes before the deadline — and minutes before his predecessor in the seat, Ginny Brown-Waite, said she would not run because of health problems.
Pasco County Tax Collector and former state legislator Mike Fasano, who had been considered one of the leading candidates to replace Brown-Waite, praised Nugent for at least leaving enough time for other candidates to challenge Grabelle.
"I give Rich a lot of credit for … not doing it at the last minute," Fasano said.
But neither Fasano nor other potential Republican candidates, including state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and former state Rep. David Russell of Brooksville, said they are considering running.
"What's the likelihood of them moving Washington, D.C., to Central Florida? Same likelihood. Not going to run," Simpson said.
He also doubted the potential move of U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, into the district.
Webster's suburban Orlando district would become dramatically more Democratic in a redistricting map most likely to be approved by the Florida Supreme Court. His office did not return a request from the Tampa Bay Times for comment Monday.
Nugent's district, which currently includes Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties and part of Marion County, would remain heavily Republican and continue to include the Villages, the conservative stronghold on the border of Sumter and Marion counties and the home of Grabelle's parents.
"I would like to see someone (in the seat) who lives here currently and has time in the district," Simpson said, naming Grabelle as a potential candidate.
Grabelle, 33, and his wife, Ginny, live in Marion County.
He grew up in Highland Park, N.J., and has a bachelor's degree in government and international affairs from George Mason University in suburban Washington, D.C., and a master's degree in health care systems from Virginia's James Madison University.
He previously worked as a staffer for Brown-Waite and vowed to continue both of his employers' advocacy for veterans in his district, which in its current form has one of the highest percentages of former military personnel in the country.
"I've been in the trenches for 10 years fighting for better veterans policy, and I am ready to lead from the front," Grabelle said.
Nugent, whose three sons are in the military, also is known for his support of veterans and for a hard-right stance on issues including immigration reform and gun rights.
National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden praised Nugent's work on "behalf of his constituents to rein in excessive government spending and to create a balanced budget."
Nugent has repeatedly voted against spending deals, including the recent bipartisan compromise reached by former House Speaker John Boehner.
He also was in the small minority of House members who supported Webster's unsuccessful challenge of Boehner's re-election as speaker in January.
Boehner responded by stripping Nugent of his position on the House Rules Committee, which Nugent said in a statement at the time differentiated him from politicians who are too willing to compromise.
"Do you want to be the 'cooperate to graduate' type," he wrote, "or are you willing to make some sacrifices to give yourself the freedom to speak your mind?"
Contact Dan DeWitt at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow @ddewitttimes. Staff writers Alex Leary and Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report.