Most people outside of Putnam County never saw it coming until the very end.
In the House District 19 race to succeed Charles Van Zant, expectations were that Katherine Van Zant or former Florida GOP chair Leslie Dougher would win.
Both had bigger names. Van Zant had more money. An interested party made sure that media throughout Northeast Florida knew about the Van Zants’ issues with a contested homestead exemption. And Dougher capitalized on that, quickly, with sponsored Facebook posts and well-timed media hits.
And after all of that, neither of them won.
Bobby Payne did.
His momentum, Payne told us Friday afternoon, came “very late in the race.”
Before that, he worked hard, and raised the majority of his money in the district.
The turning point seemed to be just before Aug. 9. At that point, money started coming in — the Florida Chamber of Commerce PAC, Florida Jobs PAC, Disney, Pfizer, Expedia, and the Orange Park Kennel Club all ponied up for Payne.
And the polls got more favorable.
One done in the last month of the race showed him closing in.
And one done a couple of weeks out showed Payne in the lead.
Compare that to an internal poll pushed by the Van Zant camp in May, which showed her up by one, and the trajectory is remarkable.
Almost as if Payne benefited from Dougher going negative on Van Zant more than Dougher herself did.
Payne noted that it got a “little bit dirty at the end,” but he stayed out of that, saying that’s not his style.
Also benefiting Payne: “Putnam is the center of the district,” he said, with almost 40 percent of the population.
Payne won Putnam with 55 percent of the vote, but he held his own — and then some — elsewhere. He got 47 percent of the vote in Union, 31 percent in Clay (beating out Van Zant), and 35 percent in Bradford, coming within two points of Van Zant … who was up 40 points in Bradford in that poll from the spring.
Payne had been encouraged to run for some time; in 2008, former state Rep. Joe Pickens wanted Payne to succeed him, but the timing wasn’t right in terms of Payne’s career and family situation.
2016, however, was a good time … and Payne sees his role as important, representing a rural community that has suffered in the last eight years, with issues like generational poverty and high unemployment.
Payne sees education as a solution to that, as well as economic development, including “keeping the jobs we have.”
Payne does face opposition in November, including Joe Snodgrass, a Democrat who suspended his campaign in August for health reasons, and two write-in candidates. Odds are excellent, however, that Payne will go to Tallahassee next year.