Democrat Jim Davis raised less money than his Republican opponent and jumped higher hurdles to reach the general election, but in the end, he had what Mark Sharpe lacked: experience and votes.
Davis won the 11th District congressional seat Tuesday, keeping U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons' seat under Democratic control and putting an end to Sharpe's political ambitions.
"Mark who?" a supporter shouted from a jubilant crowd at Valencia Garden Restaurant, as a Davis aide announced a devastating lead.
"Wow. Wow. I am very humbled by this margin," said Davis, who came from behind twice in a primary and runoff election.
Sharpe said Tuesday he raised more than $1-million, all of which was spent on the general election, while Davis almost bankrupted his campaign kitty after his October victory over former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman. He went into the general election with about $1,000.
Davis was hesitant to proclaim victory, but Gibbons, who held the seat for 34 years, pushed through the crowd triumphantly and happily turned the mantle over to the 39-year-old candidate. "Wonderful, wonderful," he said to supporters. As a half-dozen microphones jammed under his nose, Gibbons grinned. "Quality! Quality over an empty suit!" he said. "I'm real proud. He'll do a good job in Washington."
Later, as he claimed victory, Davis said he was "proud of the fact that we didn't just win, we won in the right way," a reference to negative ads from Sharpe that Davis called lies and distortions during the campaign.
Nearby, at Sharpe's headquarters at the downtown Hyatt, the mood was grim in the Regency Ballroom. Fewer than 100 supporters remained, clustered in tight knots around the TV sets, and Barney Barnhart's band was silent, when Sharpe made his first appearance of the night at 10:30.
Sharpe walked into the ballroom with his mother, Mary. The crowd cheered, and people start coming back in. He walked through the crowd, hugging supporters, then announced he wasn't giving up.
By 11:45 p.m., however, he had conceded.
"I'm proud of the effort we put into it," Sharpe said. He said he was happy to bring young people into the political process. "Maybe what we've done is open the door for a young George Washington."
Sharpe, a 36-year-old schoolteacher who waged a negative campaign against Davis, has said he will not run again if he loses this time. This was his third attempt at the congressional seat.
As he conceded, he said, "We can at least be happy we have a good man representing us," and he thanked Davis for a hard-fought race.