Jason Sager's self-described stealth campaign for Congress just went mainstream.
Mainstream, but still upstream for the tea partier turned political tenderfoot.
There are the typical speaking engagements to anyone who will have the 36-year-old Brooksville native, plus a website, bumper stickers, T-shirts and yard signs, and it is still a family-driven volunteer affair. His dad is the campaign's chief of staff and his father-in-law is finance chairman. The only compensated people are the webmaster and the certified public accountant retained as campaign treasurer.
But Sager no doubt gained a public recognition bump courtesy of the woman he wants to replace: U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, the Brooksville Republican who represents the sprawling 5th Congressional District, including all of Hernando and Citrus, most of Pasco and parts of five other counties.
Eleven minutes after the noon April 30 candidate filing deadline for the 2010 election, Brown-Waite announced her intentions to forgo her candidacy and threw her support to Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent, who had qualified earlier that morning by paying a $10,440 filing fee. The ploy burned multiple mainstream Republicans, some of whom wouldn't have minded running for the seat or at least having a larger say in who should be the favored successor.
"We got calls from (Republicans) not on my team who are now friendlier,'' said Sager. "It's been difficult to get our message out previously. Now, I take it, it'll be a little bit easier.''
Indeed. Brown-Waite, with Nugent's complicity, delivered Sager an issue to run on — the establishment's brazen attempt to manipulate the electoral process and hand down the seat to an anointed follower.
"Your congresswoman tried to cheat you and my opponent stood by silently and let it happen.''
Those are my words, not Sager's, but I presume some version of that will be repeated often during the next 15 weeks.
Sager secured his name on the Aug. 24 Republican primary ballot by collecting 7,300 signatures. He has been campaigning since October and argued that he, not Nugent, should be considered the front-runner.
Well, that's a stretch. Nugent received nearly 63,000 votes during his 2008 re-election. Sager's name has never been on a ballot. Outside Hernando County, however, their name recognition has to be just about equal. Both are unknown.
Nugent, fresh from a trip to Washington D.C. where he collected thousands in campaign contributions including $5,000 from Brown-Waite, will have to build name identification through heavy advertising. He plans to remain sheriff which means little time for weekday campaigning outside Hernando.
Sager, who is campaigning full-time, has his own strategy.
"People used to win elections before there was radio,'' he said. "You have to put your feet on the ground.''
Sager's feet hit the ground in earnest after Brown-Waite's Oct. 17 appearance before the Hernando 912 Project that Sager helped form and grow from two people to 250 members. A snippet of her talk is linked to his campaign website and in it she calls the U.S. Constitution a living document.
That's not what the strict constructionists believe. They contend the federal government has overstepped its authority, intruded into individual liberties and matters that should be determined by the states. After that meeting, Sager said members of the Hernando 912 Project asked him to run. So, he's seeking the Republican Party nomination even though he's not enthralled with the partisan nature of politics nor his own party's performance.
He has affiliated with a network of other outsiders — the Freshman 50 PAC — which, among other things, pledges congressional term limits of 12 years, a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, a flat tax and stronger ethics for Congress.
Victory, he predicts, will be on a national scale.
"Why not?'' said Sager. "There aren't too many people who feel their government is listening to them.''