ST. PETERSBURG — In a race crowded with other liberal, well-known candidates, former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch stood out in the mayoral primary on Tuesday.
Officially a nonpartisan race, Welch, 57, now becomes the blue city’s Democratic option in the two-candidate runoff with second-place finisher Robert Blackmon, a Republican currently on City Council.
Welch commands a sizable lead in the race, after earning 39 percent of the vote to Blackmon’s 28 percent — the largest margin in the city’s recent mayoral primaries. He would have needed 50 percent plus one vote to avoid the runoff.
Blackmon, 32, faces an uphill battle for the Nov. 2 general election: He must overcome Welch’s overwhelming support among Black voters, who could elect him the city’s first Black mayor. Blackmon also struggled with younger voters, many of whom favored third-place finisher Darden Rice, a Democrat.
Reached early Wednesday, both candidates told the Tampa Bay Times that they hadn’t looked into the data of their results.
But Blackmon did notice something from the mail-in ballot turnout. It’s not unusual that St. Petersburg voters prefer to vote by mail — Pinellas County leads the state in mail ballot votes.
But he said the numbers suggested that voters hadn’t made up their minds until the day of the election — and still could be swayed.
“There was a ton of breaking voters,” Blackmon said, referring to ballots that were dropped off instead of mailed. “All of the sudden, you had 20,000 ballots show up the day of the election. There’s something very interesting behind it.”
Counting both in-person votes and those last-day mail-in votes, about 34 percent of all ballots were submitted on Election Day. In total, about 77 percent of votes were mail ballots, up from about 68 percent in 2017.
Both Welch and Blackmon told the Times that they had conversations after the election with defeated candidates Darden Rice, Wengay Newton and Pete Boland. But they said they had not secured endorsements from their former opponents.
“Folks who were supporting Darden and Wengay, if they’re looking for a home for their vote, I think we’re the right place for them,” Welch said, adding that he would hold more conversations with them.
As for Blackmon, “I think Ken has peaked in his vote total. There’s more upside for me.”
“I’m planning on going for everybody’s voters,” Blackmon added. “Every single person including Ken Welch’s.”
Blackmon wouldn’t say whether 28 percent of the vote was his target in the primary. He said his campaigners “didn’t want to jinx it” and just predicted he would be in the runoff.
“I was just completely outgunned by time and money,” said Blackmon, who qualified for the race the day before the deadline.
Welch’s biggest threat to his campaign is what he needs to overcome to secure his win.
“Complacency,” he said. He too noticed that the mail voting rate exceeded 2017. “I’m glad to see people have faith in voting by mail. We gotta get folks to understand how important local government is.”
He said he’s going to keep his positive message focused on partnerships and accomplishments for the community.
“We’re not going to get into personalities,” Welch said. “We’re not going to do it in the primary, we’re not going to do it in the general.”
Other key takeaways:
The race was only technically non-partisan. Overall, the best predictor for Welch’s or Blackmon’s success in a neighborhood was the area’s partisanship — whether voters were more likely to be registered Democrats or Republicans. Blue places chose Welch, while red places chose Blackmon.
Only 15 of the city’s 87 large precincts have more Republican voters than Democratic ones; Blackmon earned no less than 39 percent in any of those red-leaning precincts. Meanwhile in the bluest precincts, Welch regularly won over 50 percent.
It was different in 2017. In the city’s last election, support for incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman and challenger Rick Baker were less tied to the candidates’ parties. Baker, a Republican, picked up blue neighborhoods with many Black residents, especially in Midtown.
Black voters clearly favored Welch. Unlike Kriseman in 2017, Welch cleaned up Tuesday in Black neighborhoods. He won outright majorities in 16 of St. Petersburg’s 19 majority-Black precincts. He only passed the 50 percent mark in two other places.
The city’s Black population center, especially South of Central Avenue, overwhelmingly voted for him. Wengay Newton, who is also Black, finished second in several districts in and south of Midtown, while Blackmon and Rice struggled.
Rice finished a distant third, but her support could push Welch over the top. Rice won one precinct, in Crescent Lake — and even there, she only beat Welch by 7 votes. But in the runoff, if Welch is able to maintain his share of the vote and add hers, he would already have 56 percent of the total, more than enough to win.
Blackmon will need to either win over voters who picked one of the liberal candidates or dramatically turn out new supporters to overtake Welch.
Rice’s support was based in whiter, Democratic-leaning neighborhoods like Kenwood and the Old Northeast. Precincts with more voters in their 30s leaned towards her.