Republicans Johnnie Byrd, Ronda Storms and James McHugh fought Tuesday night for two spots in an October runoff for state House District 62.
Early returns showed Byrd, 45, a past president of the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, in a virtual tie with Storms, 30, a lawyer and former high school teacher. McHugh, also a lawyer and former high school teacher, trailed the other two.
The two candidates who receive the most votes will go on to an Oct. 1 runoff.
"It looks great," Byrd said Tuesday, adding, "It's going to be a long night."
Storms also expressed optimism. "We worked really hard," she said. "If the voters want to shake my hand, I want to shake their hand."
The winner of the Republican runoff will meet Democrat Troy Surrency, a former Plant City police chief for 26 years, in the November general election.
Both Republican and Democratic candidates jumped into the race at the last minute.
Only a week before the deadline to register as a candidate, state Rep. Buddy Johnson, R-Plant City, stunned both parties when he announced he would not run again. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family.
Johnson, the GOP's floor leader in the House, had been slated to become one of the most powerful legislators in House if the GOP took over the chamber in November. He would have become chairman of the House Rules Committee.
Johnson's departure set off a scramble for House District 62, a conservative area that includes Brandon, Plant City and Thonotosassa and contains a nearly even number of Democrats and Republicans.
Both parties consider the seat key to the battle to control the entire House, which now has 63 Democrats and 57 Republicans.
The four Republicans who entered the race all share business backgrounds and hold conservative views on issues such as fighting crime and cutting government regulations.
Byrd said he considered reducing juvenile crime a top priority if elected. Storms also named education and court system tort reform as important issues. McHugh put crime and education at the top of his agenda.
A fourth candidate, Lloyd O'Hara, 41, who runs Heritage Nursery in Dover, appeared far behind in early returns.