David Storck was correct to not seek another term as Hillsborough County's Republican Party chairman. His lack of judgment in forwarding a racist e-mail about Barack Obama made him an embarrassment for the party. But he also presided over a local slate that was pummeled at the polls. Democrats beat Republican incumbents in two countywide seats and polled unusually heavy in races where they should not have been a factor. Local Republicans need to change their message and broaden their appeal if they hope to compete in 2010 and beyond.
Hillsborough Republicans should heed the losses by Commissioner Brian Blair and Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson. Blair kowtowed to the development industry and made himself more unattractive by inflaming social division. He won just 45 percent of the vote against Kevin Beckner, a lesser showing than what two first-time Democrat candidates polled against entrenched Republicans.
Johnson had more years of bad press but he, like Blair, was in over his head and secretive and unethical to boot. For the local party to recover, it needs to quit placing ideology above integrity and qualifications. Republicans who hold constitutional offices in Hillsborough — Doug Belden, David Gee, Rob Turner — have shown a professionalism that appeals across party lines. Mark Ober, the state attorney, another Republican, inherited a mess from his Democratic predecessor and cleaned it up, and he does not play the law-and-order card.
The county party needs to be more pragmatic, and if that requires a full-out battle between social conservatives in the rural areas and traditional business Republicans, so be it. It cannot continue to speak in two minds or afford to have its promising leaders, notably Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Rose Ferlita, wonder about their standing if they work with Democrats.
Hillsborough voters will likely decide in 2010 whether to create a county mayor. In this month's election, voters approved giving a mayor veto power should the mayoral referendum pass. While that job, under the proposal, would be a nonpartisan position, the race will be a thinly veiled contest between the two parties. Republicans and Democrats are already talking about whom they would run. But to compete, in this race and others, Republicans will need to copy the Democrats' organizational success this year and use of new media.
The next county chair needs to return the Republicans to their old place in local politics — as voices for ethics, civic service and business sense.