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  1. Florida Politics

Could the Republican vote swing the Tampa mayor's race?

"I think they're the determining vote in this election," says mayoral candidate and former county commissioner Ed Turnachik.
Published Feb. 26

TAMPA — The last Tampa mayoral forum may have been the worst attended.

Just four of the seven candidates showed up to Ybor City's Carne Chophouse to speak at the event hosted by the Tampa Bay Young Republicans: City Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez, small business consultant Topher Morrison and former county commissioner Ed Turanchik.

No Jane Castor, the former Tampa police chief. No David Straz, the retired banker and philanthropist. No Dick Greco Jr. — although the retired judge did send campaign representatives. (He was sick with bronchitis, they said.)

In a race full of qualified candidates, those might be the three with the most name recognition.

Being a Republican in a city dominated by Democrats can be lonely sometimes.

But Monday's poor attendance at the umpteenth mayoral forum doesn't mean the candidates are discounting the Republican vote ahead of the March 5 election.

In fact, ask them and they'll tell you just the opposite.

"I think they're the determining vote in this election," Turnachik said in an interview Tuesday, noting the Democratic vote was sure to be split among the seven candidates registered with the party. (Castor and Straz have also been registered Republicans in the past.)

Republicans make up about a quarter of the Tampa electorate. That's not enough to elect a Republican mayor — or even a city council member, if recent history tells us anything. There are fewer registered Republicans in Tampa than there are voters without a party affiliation.

But if one candidate can grasp a sizable portion of the GOP vote, it may be enough to tip the scales in next week's election, or at least earn a spot in an April runoff. Early voting numbers through Tuesday afternoon show that 31 percent of the votes cast so far have come from Republicans.

It's unclear precisely which candidate has the edge among GOP voters. But there are some — admittedly anecdotal — signs that show who may be making inroads.

Even in this nonpartisan race, certain candidates' policy preferences could win over Republicans. Straz, for example, has called for the private sector to lead the effort to build more affordable housing in Tampa. Free market-oriented solutions generally do better among Republicans. Straz also voted for Donald Trump in 2016, although he's since apologized for doing so.

Greco said at a South Tampa forum in January that immigrants who come to Tampa through illegal means "won't be welcome" — tough immigration rhetoric that could do well with GOP voters. At the Young Republicans forum Monday, Jake Hoffman, the group's president, said a question about whether Tampa would become a sanctuary city under the next mayor was among the most pressing to his group.

All of the candidates, Greco included, have said that Tampa has little control over immigration enforcement because the city controls no jails.

Squishier examples could be arranged into a narrative about a candidate's dedication to Republican outreach. Just three candidates filled out the Republican Party of Hillsborough's candidate questionnaire: Greco, Morrison and Turanchik.

Negative texts sent last week to unaffiliated and Republicans targeted Straz, perhaps an attempt to quell GOP enthusiasm for the philanthropist. But we don't know for sure; all seven campaigns disavowed the texts.

If you want to get crazy, you could even point to the flag flying above Interstate 275 near West Shore Boulevard. In election cycles past, it's advertised Republicans: Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis. Today, the flag flies "Greco For Mayor." (Greco did not respond to a request for comment.)

But a statewide election this is not. It's a low-turnout municipal election focused around city issues like transportation. As Turanchik said, "There's not a lot of red or blue potholes around."

That could be why the candidates that attended the Republican forum Monday evening billed themselves as consensus builders.

Cohen said it would be important for the next mayor to "check partisan politics at the door."

Turanchik said his broad coalition of support includes Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats.

Suarez highlighted his working relationships with the Republican leaders of Plant City and Temple Terrace.

And Morrison said that even if voters behave like partisans on March 5, it's the job of the next mayor to be above the political fray.

"You can be a Democrat or a Republican when you're running, but when you become elected, you don't represent a party," Morrison said. "You represent the city."

Times staff writer Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets.

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