Florida Primaries to Set Up November Battles

Posted August 22, 2008 at 5:38pm

Despite all the distractions of this week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, Florida political watchers will keep one eye on the home front come Tuesday, when Sunshine State primary voters head to the polls to fill out the November ballot.

Considering the state has 25 Congressional districts, both Republicans and Democrats were successful in keeping expensive and nasty primary battles to a minimum this cycle, essentially earning a pass to Election Day in all but two districts — one apiece for Republicans and Democrats.

In freshman Rep. Tim Mahoney’s (D-Fla.) 16th district, which runs from the Palm Beach area west to the Gulf of Mexico, three Republicans are locked in a bloody primary contest in which none of the trio are expected to garner more than 40 percent of the vote.

Political newcomer Tom Rooney, a former Army attorney and scion of the famed National Football League’s Pittsburgh Steelers family, is expected to beat City Councilman Hal Valeche and state Rep. Gayle Harrell for the GOP nod.

“Rooney won’t get 40-50 percent of the vote in a three-way primary, which is still relatively close,” a state GOP source said Friday. “It will probably be more like 35-40 percent, so I’d say this election is Tom Rooney’s election to win, not Tom Rooney’s election to lose.”

The source also speculated that Valeche and Harrell — both credible local officials with gobs of money — may be swept up in the anti-incumbent fervor that’s running red hot in many districts nationwide.

Valeche’s campaign had raked in nearly $1.1 million as of Aug. 6, roughly half of which came out of his own pocket. Through the most recent filing period, the Palm Beach Gardens councilman had spent all but $260,000.

But Rooney, who has raised about $790,000 and had about $230,000 in the bank on Aug 6, has racked up numerous endorsements in recent weeks, including the backing of popular Gov. Charlie Crist (R), a potential vice-presidential choice for presumptive presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Rooney was also endorsed by former Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), his former boss, and by former state Rep. Joe Negron (R), who lost to Mahoney last cycle in an unusual race that featured disgraced ex-Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) name on the ballot.

Although Harrell’s legislative district takes up a significant portion of Mahoney’s 16th district, she had raised only about $700,000 as of Aug. 6. And should she win, fundraising reports indicate Harrell would begin the general election race with little to no available cash.

Mahoney, who does not have a primary opponent, had about $1 million in the bank as of Aug. 6, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Meanwhile, in the Orlando-based 8th district, Charlie Stuart, the 2006 Democratic nominee, is expected to emerge from a five-way field Tuesday and get a second chance at knocking off Rep. Ric Keller (R) on Nov. 4.

Local businessman Alan Grayson, who sank more than $1 million into his candidacy, and attorney Mike Smith are expected to to split the bulk of the remaining Democratic votes in the contest.

Keller, who beat Stuart by about 13,000 votes in the previous cycle, is heavily favored to win the GOP primary over local attorney Todd Long, who has spent about $340,000.

The four-term Congressman, who voted to authorize the Iraq War but voted in 2007 against the White House-backed troop “surge,” saw the writing on the wall early in the cycle when he became an early target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. As of Aug. 6, Keller had socked away almost $870,000 for the race that is expected to escalate after the primary.

Keeping with the national trend, Florida Democrats in particular appeared to avoid potentially damaging primary contests, namely in typically strong GOP areas of South Florida that the DCCC is targeting.

For example, former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez (D) has a clear shot for the nomination to take on Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R), and self-financing businesswoman Annette Taddeo (D), who will face Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) on Election Day, has no opposition Tuesday.

“You always try to recruit quality candidates and avoid primaries, so your candidates can focus on the general election,” a Florida Democratic operative said.