Voters won't know until polls close Tuesday which of three Democrats running in the 12th Congressional District primary will face U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, in the Nov. 6 election. But Democrat Chris Hunter says a misleading weekend push poll is already trying to taint his candidacy.
Hunter said the telephone poll, conducted days before the primary, asked voters whether they would be more or less likely to vote for him if they knew he wanted to dismantle U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and open the borders, when in reality, he does not support either concept.
The poll also asked whether voters would be more or less likely to back Hunter if they knew he supported House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for House Speaker. Hunter said he would not support Pelosi, saying "we need to have a new generation of leaders in Congress."
"The willingness to sow disinformation is such a dangerous precedent that has already been set, and now politicians like Gus Bilirakis are using that play from the dirty tricks playbook to, in this instance, hang on to the seat his father bequeathed him," Hunter told the Tampa Bay Times Monday.
Bilirakis campaign manager Towson Fraser said Monday he would not confirm or deny whether the Bilirakis campaign was involved in the weekend push poll, stating "we don't discuss campaign strategy publicly."
Dr. Stephen Craig, professor of political science and director of the Political Campaigning Program at University of Florida, said push polls are classic dirty tricks often deployed days before elections with the sole goal of disseminating negative information about opponents.
The first misleading thing about them – they aren't really even polls.
"People who do push polls don't care about people's opinions and they certainly don't do representative samples," Craig said. "What they want is to get bad information about the other candidate out to as many people as possible… the information contained in these phone calls is at the very least misleading and often false."
Craig said it's impossible to immediately know who is conducting or paying for the phone calls as their associations are usually not disclosed. If campaigns pay for them, the expenditure would not be reflected in financial disclosures until after the election.
He said campaigns do not typically conduct push polls, instead leaving the work to associated groups. But Craig said the fact Bilirakis' campaign is not confirming or denying their involvement seemed odd.
The Tampa Bay Times was unable to obtain a recording of the push poll. And it was unclear if the only recipients were registered Republicans, who would be unable to vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary due to Florida's closed primaries, or whether registered Democrats were also called.
Hunter, 45, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent, quit his job in December to run against Bilirakis for Congress.
Bilirakis, 55, faces no Republican challenger in Tuesday's primary and is running for a seventh term in the seat his father, Michael Bilirakis, held for 24 years before him.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted District 12 as winnable in part because of Hunter's candidacy.
Hunter faces Tarpon Springs tax consultant Stephen Perenich and Lutz criminal defense attorney Robert Tager in Tuesday's Democratic primary.
Tager ran his first campaign against Bilirakis in 2016 and vowed to keep running against him until he is voted out of office. Perenich said he was also inspired to run for office, in part, because of Bilirakis' record.