State Rep. Darryl Rouson held a tenuous lead of fewer than 100 votes over state Rep. Ed Narain late Tuesday night in the most closely contested primary battle in the Tampa Bay region.
The Democratic primary for state Senate District 19 pitted three well-known black lawmakers and a self-funded political newcomer.
Rouson declared victory, though his winning margin of less than half a percent would appear to trigger a recount.
"We're not afraid of a recount," Rouson said from his watch party at Green Bench Brewing Co. in St. Petersburg. "At this point, the people have spoken. … Big money interests didn't win today. It was the people that spoke."
If the vote holds, Rouson will have edged out Rep. Ed Narain of Tampa in one of the state's most closely contested elections. Rouson's lead was notable considering Hillsborough County, which Narain currently represents in the Florida House, drew higher turnout in the tight contest than Rouson's home turf of Pinellas County.
By law, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state's chief elections official, must order a machine recount of all ballots if two candidates are within one-half of 1 percent. That could happen within a day or two.
"I'm guided by what statute says with regard to the results," Detzner said. "I don't have any discretion."
If the machine recount ends and the candidates are separated by less than a quarter of 1 percent, a manual recount is required of all overvotes and undervotes — that is, every paper ballot in which an optical machine recorded a voter as having voted for more than one candidate or for no candidates.
Here is where things get complicated. That manual recount is driven by Florida's voter intent law, which means that three-member canvassing boards in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties will examine the overvotes and undervotes by hand and discern the voters' intent.
The canvassing boards also will review provisional ballots cast in the race, and their decisions are subject to challenge in circuit court, which could delay the result for a long time.
"Obviously, we're disappointed," Narain said from his watch party in Tampa, "but we still want to make sure that the outcome is correct, so we'll follow the process.
"We knew it would be close. We didn't think it would be a handful of votes."
While Rouson and Narain led the pack, former state Rep. Betty Reed of Tampa and St. Petersburg lawyer Augie Ribeiro trailed with 22 percent and 21 percent of the vote, respectively.
The campaign was one of the most heated in Tampa Bay, with political advertising flooding doorsteps and airwaves for the past two months. Ribeiro, who finished last, poured more than half a million dollars of his own money into the campaign.
Senate District 19 is one of several in the state drawn to favor minority candidates. It previously covered portions of three counties, but was then narrowed to Pinellas and Hillsborough.
Tuesday's primary election all but secured the senate seat for the primary winner, who will run against Republican John Houman in November. He has received no contributions since filing in May.
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Michael Auslen contributed to this report.