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What went wrong? Tampa Bay candidates who lost races reflect on their campaigns

The Times reached out to Alan Cohn in CD 15, Tampa state House challengers Julie Jenkins and Jessica Harrington, and ousted House member Jennifer Webb of St. Petersburg.
Voters wait in line outside the Centre of Palm Harbor Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Voters wait in line outside the Centre of Palm Harbor Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2020

Heading into the 2020 election, Tampa Bay area Democrats hoped to flip congressional and state legislative seats but ended up failing badly, gaining no seats and losing one state House seat.

Their hopes may have been unrealistic — most of the districts involved were red-leaning.

But could they have done better if they had campaigned differently?

The Times asked four: Alan Cohn in Congressional District 15, Tampa state House challengers Julie Jenkins and Jessica Harrington, and ousted House member Jennifer Webb of St. Petersburg.

Only one, Webb, said she would adopt a different strategy in hindsight.

Jennifer Webb
Jennifer Webb

Turnout in her district overwhelmed the number of votes she thought she would need to win, Webb said. Had she expected that, “I would have expanded my universe” for mailings and digital ads to reach more previously unengaged voters.

Cohn said he ran a successful campaign in fundraising and issue messaging and got more votes than any previous Democrat in the east Hillsborough-Lakeland-Clermont district. But, he said, “The outcome … was largely driven by the presidential race,” where Trump won the district by 8.5 points.

Alan Cohn
Alan Cohn

Cohn said he might have improved his result with door-to-door canvassing but decided against it because of pandemic risk to voters and volunteers: “It was the right decision to make and I stand by it.”

Jenkins said a “red wave” and heavy GOP spending on “negative attacks and lies on TV and mail” doomed her campaign.

Julie Jenkins
Julie Jenkins

“I think many of us underestimated how Republicans would perform this year,” she said.

And Harrington said the pandemic destroyed her plan for a grassroots campaign of volunteers and canvassing, leaving her vulnerable to “a million dollars in false attack ads.”

Jessica Harrington
Jessica Harrington

Without the disease, “I would have spent less time on the phone raising money, and more time safely canvassing face to face,” she said.

Rouson to chair Ag Committee

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, says he’s excited to be named chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, although agriculture hasn’t been one of his primary political concerns and he’s not sure whether there’s any in his district.

Senator Darryl Rouson on the Florida Senate floor on the 60th day of the 2020 session in Tallahassee.
Senator Darryl Rouson on the Florida Senate floor on the 60th day of the 2020 session in Tallahassee. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

“We’re researching that,” Rouson said when asked whether there’s any farming in his minority-access 19th district. It covers southern St. Petersburg and crosses the bay to parts of Hillsborough’s South Shore and western Brandon.

Democrats typically receive a sprinkling of prized committee chairmanships in the Republican-controlled Legislature, and Rouson is one of three Democratic chairs chosen by Republican Senate President Wilton Simpson of Trilby.

Rouson is known for working with and occasionally voting with Republicans.

He said he didn’t ask for the agriculture post but looks forward to learning about and working in the area.

“This pandemic has highlighted food insecurity in the general community and food deserts in communities of color,” he said.

He said the committee could deal with issues important to the minority community, including school lunch programs and remedying problems of black farmers, who have faced discrimination in the past in government agricultural support programs.

He said the post will also benefit his district by making him part of the Senate leadership under Simpson. “It puts you in a relationship with the other chairs,” Rouson said.

Chairs serve at the pleasure of the president but have effective veto power over legislation that comes to their committees.

Local party elections coming up

There probably won’t be much excitement in the elections for officers of the local political parties in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties this week, but there are ongoing efforts to sway the leadership of the Hillsborough County Republican Party.

No significant challenges are expected to any of the four party chairmen – Republicans Jim Waurishuk of Hillsborough and Todd Jennings of Pinellas, and Democrats Barbara Scott of Pinellas and Ione Townsend of Hillsborough.

But dissident Republicans in Hillsborough, where Waurishuk’s leadership has been controversial, have formed a political committee intended to win back disaffected GOP donors and do the grassroots political work they contend the local party isn’t accomplishing.

Prominent GOP donor Hung Mai of Tampa is chairman of the new group, the Hillsborough Leadership Council, which also includes go-to GOP finance maven Nancy Watkins and veteran political consultant April Schiff.

Hung Mai, head of an engineering firm and local GOP political donor.
Hung Mai, head of an engineering firm and local GOP political donor. [ Times (2009) ]

“It’s not the intent to take over” the local party, Mai said. But he said the Hillsborough GOP has failed at recruiting and supporting local candidates, and the committee intends to supplement its work in that area.

As of this week, there were no announced challengers to any of the four chairmen, although late challengers could materialize.

In Pinellas, there will be contested races for vice chair and two local delegates to the state party, and party insiders say there’s a common theme in the races of progressive vs. pragmatic Democrats.

But Scott said she foresees “a boring election.”

Pinellas Republican insiders also foresee no strong challenge to Jennings after the party’s comparative success this year in local races.

After a very successful year for local Democratic candidates in Hillsborough and record local party fundraising, Townsend likely faces no serious challenger.

Hillsborough County Democratic Party chair Ione Townsend
Hillsborough County Democratic Party chair Ione Townsend [ WILLIAM MARCH | Photo courtesy of Ione Townsend ]

In fact, the recent successes of Hillsborough Democrats have given rise to talk of Townsend entering the race for state party chairman.

This week, Townsend would only confirm that she has been asked to consider it.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com