CLEARWATER — Candidates hoping to be competitive in this year’s races for a seat on the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners likely will need deep pockets.
The latest campaign reports filed Friday show that three candidates, including Largo Mayor Pat Gerard and state Rep. Ed Hooper, both vying for the at-large District 2 seat, already have raised more than $100,000 in donations.
Meanwhile, political newcomer Johnny Johnson, one of seven Republicans seeking to replace retiring District 4 Commissioner Susan Latvala, is leading challengers with more than $90,000 in campaign contributions.
Fundraising totals have not reached record levels, but observers expect that could happen after the Aug. 26 primary, especially because state lawmakers this year doubled the limit for individual contributions in local races to $1,000. In 2012, Republican Neil Brickfield raised $156,000 in his losing campaign, the highest total for a commission candidate since 2000, according to Supervisor of Elections Office reports.
“You’ll really see a huge increase in funds going to those candidates after the primary election when the field is whittled out and the race has become clearer,” said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
In District 2, incumbent Republican Norm Roche faces a steep disadvantage with only $20,000 raised so far. In the primary, he will face Republican Hooper, who leads all candidates with more than $126,000 raised. The winner will contest the seat in the Nov. 4 general election against Gerard, a Democrat who has raised roughly $115,000 and has the advantage of not having a primary opponent.
Despite the benefits of being the incumbent, Roche may struggle to hold on to his seat, said Paulson, who expects Hooper and Gerard to contest November’s general election.
“The fact that he can’t raise money is a sign he has little support among Republican, Democrats or independents,” Paulson said. “He looks like the odd man out.”
Roche disputes that and said he has enough money to run his campaign. In 2010, he overcame a 6-1 fundraising disadvantage to defeat Democrat Calvin Harris. That year, though, he did not face a Republican opponent.
“I wasn’t elected to run around and raise money,” he said. “I’ve gotten exactly what I’ve needed for the campaign.”
The lure of a vacant seat has attracted 10 candidates for District 4, an area with a high percentage of Republican-registered voters.
Five of the seven Republicans have raised at least $15,000, illustrating that the high number of candidates may be dividing support evenly, making it tough for any one candidate to stand out.
Of the seven, former state lawmaker Peter Nehr and Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers may enjoy more name recognition, but that may not necessarily be an advantage, Paulson said. Nehr has raised roughly $45,000, a slight lead over Eggers who has raised almost $40,000. Nehr “has name recognition, but more of it is negative than positive,” he said, referring to Nehr’s losing the state House District 65 seat to Democrat Carl Zimmerman. “Eggers, as a mayor, will not be well-known outside the area of Dunedin.”
The battle for District 6 seat will be decided in the Republican primary in a two-way contest between incumbent John Morroni and activist Tom Rask. Morroni has raised more than $109,000 compared with Rask’s $7,600.
“Morroni has all the advantages of incumbency including the fundraising advantage,” Paulson said. “Rask will have to come up with some issue which resonates with voters or he will not be able to muster an effective campaign.”