Congressional candidate Sandy Freedman started Tuesday evening by opening a fortune cookie that predicted she "will be rewarded with a great honor." By early today, as final election results came in, it seemed the cookie was correct.
The former mayor of Tampa held a double-digit lead over her three Democratic opponents in the race to replace retiring Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Tampa, in the 11th Congressional District.
With almost all precincts reporting, Freedman was solidly ahead. State Rep. Jim Davis was battling with Hillsborough County Commissioner Phyllis Busansky for a spot in the runoff with Freedman. Davis led, but only by a few hundred votes. Former state legislator Pat Frank was running fourth.
"We always thought there would be a runoff," Freedman said. "You had four qualified candidates in this race."
Freedman, who raised more than $200,000 for her race, had campaigned and spent money conservatively. Now, she said, she was "ready to roll" into the runoff.
Meanwhile, Davis and Busansky watched the election returns at two downtown restaurants. The race between them stayed within a few percentage points all night long, though Davis was always slightly ahead.
As some late returns showed his hold on second place slipping slightly, Davis' enthusiastic camp quieted.
"We still think some of our precincts in South Tampa are yet to come in," Davis said.
He said he was heartened by the numbers overall.
"I think the vote suggests that a significant majority of the voters want an alternative (to Freedman)," Davis said. "My job will continue to be to tell the voters why I will be the best person."
At Carlino's Cafe, Busansky wore a green dress that matched the green "Busansky for Congress" signs. As returns showed Busansky lingering in third place, the mood was tense.
"My biggest problem is I have a lot of Republicans and independents supporting me," said Busansky of her showing in the Democratic primary.
As returns reached the 80 percent mark and the clock neared midnight, both Davis and Busansky were watching and waiting.
"We're waiting until 100 percent of the vote is counted," Busansky said.
Busansky had targeted voters with direct mail touting her achievements as a county commissioner. Davis finished his campaign over the Labor Day weekend with a strong push on local radio stations, including an endorsement from Gibbons' son Tim. Davis had pushed his experience as a legislator.
The winner of the Oct. 1 runoff election will face Republican candidate Mark Sharpe in the November election.
The congressional race started off civilly, with candidates running on their records of public service. Freedman, who had strong leads in early polls, refused to attack any of her opponents. Busansky also focused her campaign on her record.
But as election day neared, some shots were fired. In a mailer to voters, Davis implied that a Freedman policy during her tenure as mayor was partly responsible for the shooting of two police officers. Freedman vehemently denied the accusation, and top police officials supported her. Davis also questioned some of Busansky's policies during debates.
Frank, a veteran of the Legislature, tried to distance herself from her opponents by talking about reform of Social Security and Medicare. She was also an outspoken opponent of the half-cent sales tax initiative.
But her opposition to the tax didn't seem to raise her popularity at the polls. Frank said her defeat was largely due to a lack of money.
"We heard today that Davis was at about $230,000, and we only had $60-some thousand. I don't feel badly about it. We brought up the issues," she said.
Whoever turns out to be her opponent, Freedman said she hopes the runoff won't turn on negative campaigning.
"I hope it's going to be an issue-oriented campaign. Not a personal attack on any candidate. That only strengthens Mark Sharpe," Freedman said.