Hillsborough now firmly blue

A growing urban and suburban population has shifted Hillsborough's politics, pundits say.
Kim Overman checks the election results during the Kim Overman watch party for Hillsborough County Commission District 7 at C House on November 6, 2018 in Tampa.
TAILYR IRVINE | Times Kim Overman checks the election results during the Kim Overman watch party for Hillsborough County Commission District 7 at C House on November 6, 2018 in Tampa.
Published Nov. 7, 2018|Updated Nov. 8, 2018

TAMPA – When Republicans overturned a Democratic majority on the Hillsborough County Commission in 2004, conservatives looked to have a long-term lock on the county.

Commissioners like Ronda Storms drew strong support from rural parts of Hillsborough by touting their conservative and Christian principles. A controversial ban on the county promoting or taking part in any gay pride events soon followed.

Fast forward to Tuesday's midterms and Hillsborough is barely recognizable as the same county.

Voters not only elected their first majority Democrat commission but also the first majority female board since 2004. And the county that overwhelmingly rejected a transit referendum in 2010 enthusiastically backed not one, but two new taxes for schools and transportation.

Once considered a bellwether county, pundits say Hillsborough is now firmly blue.  The shift is the result of a burgeoning young population in urban areas like downtown Tampa and Seminole Heights, and the spread of suburbs into once Republican strongholds in the east and south of the county.

"We're living in a Democratic county," said Republican political consultant Anthony Pedicini, whose two commission candidates, Republican Todd Marks and Commissioner Victor Crist, both lost heavily in countywide races. "Unless your name is Sheriff Chad Chronister and you can raise $1.5 million, it's hard to for a Republican to compete countywide."

The shift in Hillsborough's politics was evident up and down the ballot.

Losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum polled 9 percentage points higher in the county than Republican Ron DeSantis. Hillsborough voters also backed Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson by eight points over opponent Rick Scott.

And other Republicans, including Commissioner Ken Hagan and U.S House District 15 candidate Ross Spano, only scored narrow victories.

Democrat Adam Hattersley, who snagged a surprising win in eastern Hillsborough County, pointed to Tampa "expanding" eastward and diluting the traditionally conservative rural cast of his district as a contributing factor in his win over Republican  Joe Wicker in the House District 59 race.

"We're finally starting to get a little more urban and a little more blue," Hattersley said.

Democratic Commissioner Les Miller agreed that the county as a whole is definitely trending blue.  Tuesday's election continued a strong showing in races that began in 2016 when the party won all four countywide races on the general election ballot, with victories for incumbents Bob Henriquez in the property appraiser's race and Clerk of the Court Pat Frank and a surprise victory in the state attorney's race for newcomer Andrew Warren.

More Democratic-leaning minority voters, more engaged millennials and independent voter who are more receptive to his party's message are behind the political shift, Miller said.

Results from Tuesday show that even precincts in rural areas including Riverview, Ruskin, Wimauma and Sun City Center supported the penny on the dollar sales tax for transportation.

And while it was rejected by a few hundred votes in areas like Dover, voters in vote-rich downtown and West Tampa were backing it by margins of two to one.

Commissioners in both parties said the new commission will continue a tradition of working across partisan lines and agreed transportation would be the first priority.

But they differed in what the new majority means for that pivotal issue.

"The commission is generally a very collegial group. We figure out ways to work together," said Commissioner Sandy Murman, a Republican. "I feel good about it. I really do."

Miller agreed that deciding how to spend the windfall of the new penny transportation tax was the first order of business. But elections matter, he said.

"With the Democratic majority,  I believe we can get there. I don't know if we could have gotten there if the Republicans had remained in control," Miller said.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the success of the school and transportation tax initiatives shouldn't be confused with a political shift to the left.  Functioning roads and schools aren't partisan issues, he said, but quality of life concerns.

"If you're stuck in traffic it doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican," Buckhorn said. "I think people just stopped listening to the trolls."

The term-limited mayor, who has been involved in Hillsborough politics for 35 years, had some apparent advice for newly-elected Democrats Kim Overman and Mariella Smith, although he declined to specify who had "gotten carried away with their election-night rhetoric."

Local government is about filling potholes, fixing roads and other nuts and bolts work.

"If they try to nationalize the job they have, they'll be out of office in four years," Buckhorn said.

Each dot represents one of the 390 precincts in Hillsborough County. Green precincts voted "Yes" on the transportation sales tax amendment. Orange precincts voted "No." The size of the dot represents the margin of victory in the precinct.