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David Straz's path to victory in the Tampa mayoral race? 'It's not a hill, it's a mountain.'

Former police chief Jane Castor got three times as many votes as runner-up David Straz in last week’s primary. He says there is still a path to victory. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
Former police chief Jane Castor got three times as many votes as runner-up David Straz in last week’s primary. He says there is still a path to victory. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Mar. 11, 2019

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TAMPA — David Straz squeaked into Tampa's mayoral runoff last week when Jane Castor fell just 980 votes short of outright victory. She got three times as many votes as him.

Is a come-from-behind victory even possible?

Straz thinks so.

"There were 52 percent of the voters that did not vote for Jane Castor. I think that's very meaningful,'' Straz said the day after the primary. "We expect to get a lot of those votes.''

Others scoff.

"It's not a hill,'' said Anthony Pedicini, a Tampa GOP-based political consultant. "It's a mountain to climb."

A Tampa Bay Times analysis of the March 5 primary vote shows the challenge facing Straz as he campaigns for the April 23 runoff.

The last competitive mayoral election in Tampa was in 2011. That year, about 20 percent of people who voted in the runoff didn't cast a ballot in the primary, according to voter history data for people still registered in 2019.

If the turnout is similar next month, Straz would need to get a majority of those new voters. But he would also have to get all of the returning voters who didn't vote for Castor in the first round, when she received 48 percent of the vote to Straz's 15.5 percent.

Pedicini said Straz's most likely option would be to go strongly negative against Castor, though he's skeptical such an approach would work.

"They went very negative at the end (of the primary)," Pedicini said, referring to mailers attacking Castor on the disproportionate ticketing of black bicyclists during her tenure as chief and her support of red-light cameras. "And it doesn't look like it helped him very much."

Victor DiMaio, a Democratic political consultant in Tampa, said throwing mud is Straz's only option.

"She's on a pedestal that's pretty high. He'd have to run a Donald Trump-style campaign just completely destroying her," DiMaio said.

A big question: How much money is Straz willing to spend? The retired banker already has ponied up a history-making amount on the race — almost $3-million just on the primary.

Straz has to shake up his image, Pedicini said. Something kept most voters from choosing him. But that would require massive amounts of television and mailers, he said.

In a preemptive move, Castor's campaign delivered a letter to Straz asking for a positive, issues-based campaign and for him to agree to at least three televised debates next month. The Straz campaign made no commitments.

He did, however, vow to spend whatever it takes to win.

Finishing first will require Straz to do a lot more than just hold on to the 7,522 voters who cast their ballots for him on March 5. He also would need to pick up almost all of the votes scooped up by the five candidates eliminated in the primary.

Third-place finisher Harry Cohen endorsed Castor after the primary. So did fifth-place finisher Dick Greco Jr. Between them, Cohen and Greco Jr. got 10,065 votes. If most of their supporters follow them into the Castor camp, Straz's mountain to climb starts to look like Everest.

Another option would be to convince people who skipped the primary to come to the polls for the runoff. That's not impossible. It happened in 2011, when about 8,400 voters cast ballots in the runoff who didn't vote in the first round.

Just across the bay in St. Petersburg, about 10,500 more voters turned out for the 2017 showdown between Mayor Rick Kriseman and Rick Baker than had voted in the primary two months earlier.

Jacob Smith managed Kriseman's campaign, getting attention and praise for his strategy of targeting first-time voters in the campaign.

"We didn't assume people who voted in the primary would vote in the general," Smith said. "Expanding the electorate is always helpful"

But Smith, who recently managed U.S. Sen. Krysten Sinema's win in Arizona, said an important factor in the Kriseman-Baker race was money. As in Tampa this year, that race shattered records for spending in the Sunshine City.

"A record amount of spending usually means a record turnout. It creates awareness," Smith said.

It remains to be seen if that political maxim holds true in Tampa. Turnout among registered voters for the primary was under 21 percent — lower than in 2011 despite more than $5 million spent on the race by the seven primary candidates.

A crucial demographic will be black voters. The Times analysis showed black voters formed the backbone of Straz's support. Still, the Times analysis shows Castor beat Straz in the city's 13 majority-black precincts by 39 percent to 31 percent.

Cynthia Few, president of the College Hill Neighborhood Association, supported Mike Suarez in the primary. She hasn't made up her mind between Castor and Straz.

When asked what Straz would need to do to drum up turnount in the city's black neighborhoods, Few said she didn't know, partly because she doesn't know Straz.

"He has not been in East Tampa for me to get a feel for him," Few wrote in a text. She does know Castor, who has given her awards as president of the association and its crime watch.

"But that does not say the type of mayor she would be for all people, not just for black voters,'' Few said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.