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THRASHER'S LIKELY ELECTION ELATES BUSINESS LEADERS

They think he'll be a strong ally in the Senate.

As business groups rejoice in the return to power of John Thrasher as a state senator, their archenemies in the legal profession downplay the result as just one election.

Thrasher, 65, cruised to victory Tuesday over three Republican opponents in the race to replace the late Sen. Jim King, who died of cancer in July and was viewed by the trial bar as an ally on some key issues.

The election of Thrasher in Senate District 8, which stretches from the Georgia border to Daytona International Speedway, means a moderate Senate long receptive to the trial bar's agenda has shifted more favorably toward businesses. Every year the two titans clash on issues from attorneys' fees in malpractice lawsuits to liability and consumer protections for nursing homes and their patients.

Thrasher is likely to be around a long time, and he won't forget the negative ads lawyers lobbed at him for five weeks.

A former House speaker and lobbyist for doctors and other business interests, Thrasher had the support of former Gov. Jeb Bush and an army of pro-business allies who helped him weather a steady barrage of hard-hitting ads largely funded by personal injury lawyers.

"It's one election," said Coral Gables lawyer Michael Haggard, president of the trial bar group, the Florida Justice Association. "We were all by ourselves in a little bit of a long shot, against Jeb Bush and everybody else."

Haggard noted that another special election ended with a victory by Republican Joe Negron of Stuart, whom the trial bar views as friendly.

Mark Wilson of the Florida Chamber of Commerce said Thrasher's win is a welcome sign in a state that industry groups see as too fertile for nuisance lawsuits.

"This state has to change its judicial and legal climate," Wilson said. "And it's becoming clear to people that we were serious about it."

Thrasher says his goals are to keep taxes low and to help create jobs. But he could not resist a critique of the trial bar's tactics.

"Something went wrong with their tactics and strategy, obviously," said Thrasher, who received 39 percent of the vote. (Technically not yet elected, he must defeat three write-in opponents in the general election Oct. 6.)

Business lobbyists knocked on doors for Thrasher and ponied up campaign donations sought by Republican Senate leaders.

The likely next Senate president, Mike Haridopolos of Melbourne, gambled and won by backing Thrasher over insurgent candidate Dan Quiggle, a fiscal conservative who blasted Thrasher as a symbol of an out-of-touch GOP establishment.

"This election was ultimately won by John Thrasher. He was under a withering assault," Haridopolos said. "I've seen candidates wilt, whine and complain. Not Thrasher."

Asked how Thrasher's win affects the trial bar's future political prospects, Haridopolos said: "I'm not going to comment on that. And you can print that."

Haridopolos estimated that trial lawyers spent $2.5 million to beat Thrasher, while Thrasher supporters aligned with the Senate leadership spent nearly $1 million in addition to the more than $600,000 Thrasher raised.

Add in money from pro-Thrasher political committees and the other three candidates' campaigns, and up to $5 million could have been spent in just over five weeks for a part-time Senate seat that pays about $30,000 a year.

Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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