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Blue to Red: Behind the GOP victory in Pinellas, Hillsborough county races

Will the shift in political control be long-lasting or are Tampa Bay’s biggest counties still in play?
Hillsborough County commissioner Pat Kemp, District 6, pictured during a meeting as the Environmental Protection Commission is considering a proposal to build a yard waste incinerator in Lutz near Idlewild Baptist Church, at the County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022 in Tampa.
Hillsborough County commissioner Pat Kemp, District 6, pictured during a meeting as the Environmental Protection Commission is considering a proposal to build a yard waste incinerator in Lutz near Idlewild Baptist Church, at the County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2022 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Nov. 13

In 2018 and 2020, Democrats won easily in Hillsborough County up and down the ballot, and political insiders proclaimed it had become a solidly blue county.

Democrats exulted in 2018 on their first majority in years on the county board of commissioners, then expanded it in 2020.

“A countywide race,” long-time GOP political activist and donor Sam Rashid said at the time, “is a nightmare for us.”

That was then.

On Tuesday, what had looked for four years like a deep-blue county flipped bright red, electing two Republican political newcomers to replace popular Democrats as county commissioners, flipping the majority back to Republican, and voted comfortably for Republicans for governor, senator, all statewide offices and in every seriously contested state legislative race.

A smaller but similar phenomenon occurred in Pinellas.

Democratic county Commissioner Pat Gerard, seeking a third term after running unopposed in 2018, lost by 8 points to another GOP newcomer, Brian Scott, flipping that board’s majority.

Democrats won easily in Pinellas for senator and governor in 2018, but lost by substantial margins this year; and Charlie Crist, who won his congressional race in 2018 by 15 points, lost the county by 10 points running for governor Tuesday.

What happened?

In interviews this week, local Democrats focused on a sudden, severe and seemingly inexplicable failure in voter turnout, and lack of national financial help for turnout operations and advertising.

Several said they believe Hillsborough will return to its recent history as Democratic leaning, and Pinellas to its roots as a swing county, but others said that won’t happen unless the Democrats are able to duplicate the enthusiasm and voter registration and turnout efforts that delivered for the GOP on Tuesday.

The Pinellas Elections Supervisor’s Office hadn’t published Tuesday’s partisan turnout figures by late last week, but Hillsborough numbers tell the tale:

In 2018, 65 percent of the county’s Democrats turned out to vote to 71 percent of Republicans, but the Democrats’ voter registration advantage meant 25,000 more Democrats cast ballots.

In 2020, Democrats got 78 percent turnout to the Republicans’ 85 percent, but still had almost 40,000 more ballots cast.

On Tuesday, Democratic turnout plummeted to a pathetic 52 percent while Republicans turned out 68 percent. Meanwhile, the Democratic voter registration advantage had shrunk, so Republicans cast 26,000 more ballots.

“I don’t think (Hillsborough’s GOP shift) will continue,” said county Democratic Party Chair Ione Townsend.

“Democratic voters stayed home all over Florida and volunteerism was down statewide. We need to spend the next few weeks trying to figure out why. But in Hillsborough we still have a 52,000 voter registration advantage.”

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Gerard blamed the months of publicity about an expected Republican wave.

“The press kept saying it was going to be a Democratic bloodbath — a lot of people said what’s the point. And maybe they weren’t that excited about Charlie (Crist).”

A few Hillsborough Democrats were blaming Townsend, but political operative Chris Mitchell, not a Townsend ally, said, “The problem is bigger than Ione.”

Republican Hillsborough Commissioner Mike Owen, who had no general election opposition, said down-ballot races benefitted from national issues and from the popularity of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“The bottom of the ticket, you benefit from the top, or fall victim to the top.”

Hillsborough GOP official April Schiff said the Republican wins will affect future races, as incumbents tend to draw donations toward their parties.

“I can’t predict the future, but this should energize support for future Republican candidates,” she said.

“It wasn’t but a few months ago people were saying a Republican can’t win countywide,” she said. “Two of them just did with no money and little campaign structure” — newly elected commissioners Josh Wostal and Donna Cameron Cepeda.

Clendenin kicks off Tampa Council run

With the Nov. 8 elections now in the books, long-time Democratic Party official Alan Clendenin is cranking up his Tampa City Council campaign.

Clendenin has announced a Dec. 1 campaign kickoff at the Cuban Club in Ybor with a host committee of several dozen local political influencers and elected officials — though some are former elected officials after the Tuesday election.

Among them: state Reps. Fentrice Driskell and Dianne Hart; former state Reps. Adam Hattersley and Andrew Learned; displaced State Attorney Andrew Warren, Clerk of Court Cindy Stuart and former Clerk Pat Frank, numerous local Democratic donors and political activists.

The list includes a sampling of Democrats across the spectrum of the party and several Republicans. The office is non-partisan.

Clendenin faces incumbent and council Chairman Joe Citro in citywide District 1.

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