ST. PETERSBURG — Has St. Petersburg become too blue to elect a Republican mayor?
Robert Blackmon has staked his campaign for mayor on the answer being “no.” After securing a spot in the runoff election, Blackmon, a first-term City Council member, is about to put the question to the test.
Even Blackmon’s allies recognize the odds are stacked against him in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1. Blackmon will face former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, a Democrat and the top vote-getter in last month’s primary election.
“There is a path, but it is a steep hill to climb,” said Ed Montanari, the only other Republican on City Council. “It’s tough for a Republican.”
The back-of-the-napkin math explains why. Take the 39.4 percent Welch won in the primary and add in the votes of the two other top-performing Democrats in the race, Darden Rice and Wengay Newton. It’s more than enough to carry Welch to victory. Combine Blackmon’s election-night turnout of 28.3 percent with the other Republican mayoral candidate, Pete Boland, and he’s hovering around 34 percent.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes said a look to the past suggests those calculations can be misleading. Republicans ran City Hall for two decades before electing Democrat Rick Kriseman in 2013. Kriseman only narrowly defeated former Mayor Rick Baker, a Republican, in 2017. Blackmon and Montanari won citywide two years ago after successfully emerging from their district primaries.
“I don’t think St. Pete was a leftist progressive city eight years ago,” Brandes said, “and for the most part, it’s not now.”
On paper, the race is nonpartisan. Voters won’t see a party affiliation next to the names on the ballot.
Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican and local investor, said Blackmon must convince voters he can improve St. Petersburg in innovative ways.
For example, Brandes would focus on K-12 education. It’s not a traditional role for the city — schools are run by elected county boards — but Brandes said the next mayor can work with St. Petersburg College to establish a laboratory school downtown or create college scholarship programs for at-risk teens. The city could also offer classes in sailing out of the marina and aviation from Albert Whitted Airport, he said, and enlist seniors to volunteer in classrooms.
Brandes said there’s too much money and attention on improving downtown and Blackmon should focus on how he would invest in neighborhoods.
“There is absolutely an ability to win this race, and it’s really about establishing a clear vision,” Brandes said.
But where will the votes come from? It would be a stretch for Blackmon to hope that Rice and Newton voters will move into his camp en masse. Ideologically, Rice and Welch are similar — progressive politicians with a lot of downtown backers — and she endorsed him recently. Newton pulled most of his support in St. Petersburg’s Black neighborhoods, where Welch performed well. Welch would become the city’s first Black mayor if elected.
Blackmon will likely have to rely on voters who did not cast a ballot in August. Turnout hit 30 percent in the primary. In two of the last three mayor races, the run-offs had about 10,000 more voters, suggesting there are some people who are just now tuning in.
Only 17 percent of voters registered no-party affiliation voted last month, another area where there’s room for a candidate to grow their share of the vote.
“It’s a completely different race now,” Blackmon told the Tampa Bay Times. “I’ve been fundraising, reaching out to supporters to thank them for their support. A lot of people took a chance on me and I don’t take that lightly.”
Blackmon says he and his team have been regrouping since the primary. Blackmon said he’s trying to build a coalition and resources. He is scheduling fundraisers but hasn’t deployed paid media yet. Lately, he’s been mourning the death of his friend, former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Keith McCants.
Barry Edwards, a local political strategist informally advising the Blackmon campaign, said the path for a Republican is to run as a change agent and disruptor against a long-time elected official close to the current administration.
Welch was endorsed by Kriseman in the primary and has campaigned as a leader who can keep the city charging ahead. Blackmon will need to find voters who believe that the city needs a new path, Edwards said.
Alex Miranda agrees. Miranda is a Republican campaign strategist with a successful track record in parts of South Florida where there are more registered Democrats. He said Blackmon should focus on concerns that cut across party lines, like crime rates, safe streets and rising sea levels.
But it may be a tough sell to St. Petersburg voters who love where they live, Miranda said, especially in the short sprint between the primary and the November runoff. The Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections will send out mail-in ballots starting Sept. 28.
“It’s that much more difficult to run against a Democrat when the prevailing sentiment is things are going in the right direction.”
James Blair, a Republican strategist who worked on a local congressional race in 2020, said President Joe Biden’s slipping poll numbers could present an opportunity for Blackmon. Welch campaigned for Biden and appeared with first lady Jill Biden during a stop last summer in St. Petersburg.
After a presidential election, the opposition party typically fares better in the ensuing years. Some recent polls suggest that the political climate is shifting against Democrats. In April, NBC News found Democrats led Republicans by five points in a generic head-to-head matchup. The gap closed to one in late August amid Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and a worsening coronavirus crisis.
Nationalizing a municipal race in an overwhelmingly Democratic city is not easy for a Republican, Blair said. But he suggested Blackmon can talk about new challenges facing many voters under Biden’s first term, like rising inflation.
“Tie Welch to national Democrats on the kitchen table issues of today — price of gas, cost of groceries, cost of living, rent prices in St. Pete exploding,” Blair said. “The demographics are not on Blackmon’s side. So he has to cut through the partisan noise and talk about what’s hurting their pocketbooks.”
Times Staff Writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.