TAMPA — Whether it is because of his campaign war chest of almost $300,000 or the daunting task of unseating a popular incumbent, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn seems set to win a second term unopposed.
Buckhorn’s lone opponent, activist Becky Rubright, withdrew from the campaign last month. And time is running out for other challengers to emerge before the qualification deadline at noon on Jan. 16.
If none do, Buckhorn’s name will not be on the ballot, leaving the March municipal elections without the publicity and increased awareness a mayoral election campaign would generate. That has candidates for the seven city council seats up for election fearing a dip in turnout.
“I think it makes it more unpredictable,” said Julie Jenkins, whose bid for the District 2 seat is her second try for public office. “You would like to see someone in the race, mayor-wise, but that’s not going to happen. It’s sad, but it’s the state of affairs that it’s a low voter turnout.”
Previous elections suggest turnout for city elections is markedly higher when there is a competitive mayoral race.
In 2011 when there was a five-way race for mayor that included former Mayor Dick Greco, just under 23 percent of registered voters cast ballots.
Four years earlier, when incumbent Pam Iorio cruised to re-election against token opposition, turnout was a paltry 15 percent.
Buckhorn’s absence from the ballot would likely see turnout drop back down into the teens, said Scott Paine, a professor of government at the University of Tampa.
“I would put it anywhere from 3 to 5 percent lower,” he said.
How that affects the result is more difficult to quantify. Most of those voting will be residents who pay close attention to politics and local issues, Paine said.
“Historically, including the mayor’s race, the majority of residents who vote are there for a reason,” Paine said.
Candidates said their focus will be to look at voter rolls to identify residents who rarely miss an election.
“Municipal elections tend to get a very informed voter to begin with,” said Councilman Harry Cohen, who is seeking re-election to the District 4 seat. “Most voters are someone who pays attention, knows what is going on and (is) interested in the city.”
Hillsborough County Supervisors of Elections officials declined to estimate how low the turnout might be if Buckhorn is unopposed but are optimistic that greater use of postal ballots will offset a dip in turnout at the polls.
Roughly 35 percent of Hillsborough County registered voters cast ballots by mail in 2014, up from 31 percent in 2012’s general election.
“I do think that people are seeing that voting has become more convenient,” said spokeswoman Gerri Kramer.
No matter the turnout, the race tends to go to the candidates who run the strongest campaign.
“It’s a matter of who gets their base out; who gets their people out,” said Yvonne Jolie Capin, the incumbent City Councilwoman seeking re-election to the District 3 seat.