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Tampa Bay competitive ‘blue wave’ races to watch

The 2018 midterm election is widely considered one of the most contentious in recent history.

Like all midterm elections, it’s serving as a referendum on the party in power in Washington. But fueled by the overtly contentious Donald Trump administration, Democrats are fired up to send an anti-Trump message this election.

That message is trickling down to state and local races as Democrats seek to capitalize on voter motivation to the polls. Tampa Bay is no different. Here are the races to watch for a potential local “blue wave”:

Dana Young vs. Janet Cruz

Senate District 18 is a swing district. Republican incumbent Young is waging a fierce battle against outgoing House Democratic Leader Cruz to keep the seat red in a Democratic attempt to regain the Senate.

The two are polling neck and neck, with Young carrying a slight advantage. Both candidates have broad name recognition and strong political track records in Tallahassee to run on.

Like many matchups, the difference between the two lies almost solely in partisan difference.

Young supports increasing resources for charter schools and other school choice programs like voucher programs. Cruz opposes public spending on those programs that fall on the backs of traditional public schools.

Cruz wants assault weapons banned in Florida. Young doesn’t.

The outcome in this race will likely come down to voter turnout and whether or not Democrats managed to rally enough support from independent voters to head to the polls.

Amanda Murphy vs. Ed Hooper

The Republican and Democratic candidates in the Senate District 16 matchup could not be more different.

Murphy, the Democrat, is a young woman. Hooper, the Republican, is an older white male.

Murphy is a charismatic candidate, while Hooper is less personable. Murphy has stuck to mostly issue-driven campaigning, while outside groups supporting Hooper have blasted negative ads and mail pieces attacking Murphy.

Both Hooper and Murphy have a legislative track record. Murphy lost her seat to Amber Mariano by just 700 votes in 2014. Hooper left the House and then ran unsuccessfully for Pinellas County Commission in 2014. He lost to Democrat Pat Gerard.

There are a lot of forces driving this race and making it one of many potential flips for Democrats, despite a Republican spending advantage.

First, the district itself is fell into turmoil when its mostly beloved former state senator, Jack Latvala, resigned from his seat after allegations of sexual misconduct.

The Latvala controversy could actually be a boost for Murphy as nationwide voters are showing more support than ever for female candidates to overthrow long-standing ‘good ol’ boys’ club’ members filling elected bodies.

The fact that Hooper is similarly aged to Latvala and a man could put voters off electing another male to the seat.

Second, Murphy is a moderate in a district that’s also fairly moderate. While it leans Republican, Democrats aren’t far behind and independents will play a key role in who walks away with the win.

Like other close races, whichever party reaches those voters will likely emerge victorious.

Jennifer Webb vs. Ray Blacklidge

House District 69 looks poised for a Democratic overthrow.

The seat is open because incumbent Republican Kathleen Peters decided to run for Pinellas County Commission. That made the district a prime target for flipping.

Webb isn’t out-funding Blacklidge, but she’s raising enough money to stay competitive and polling favors a Webb victory.

Both candidates align with their parties on most issues, including gun control, education and health care.

One issue that could play a role in the outcome of this race is the amount of attack ads that have targeted Webb. The ads seek to portray Webb as a political insider tied to “radical” groups that would upend school choice, promote open borders and massively increase taxes.

Those ads have tied Webb to progressive gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Such negative ads can turn voters off and decrease turnout for the candidates they seek to support. That could help Webb.

But the ads, as with other attacks on Democratic candidates, weaponize “socialism” and paint Webb as a tax-happy, job-killing liberal.

If Democrats don’t have success with their get-out-the-vote efforts, those ties could be damning.

Ross Spano vs. Kristen Carlson

As a conservative, Spano should be a shoo-in for the Congressional District 15 race.

The district — which includes Brandon, Plant City and Lakeland — is heavily conservative. It went plus-10 for President Donald Trump in 2016. Incumbent Republican Dennis Ross scored a 15-point victory over the Democratic nominee in that race, Jim Lange.

Yet the race is one of the most indicative in Florida of the Democratic blue wave some are anticipating in a contentious midterm that’s serving as a referendum on the policies of President Trump.

A Carlson campaign internal poll showed the race tied. Other polls have shown a close race with some giving Spano an edge, but not the landslide the district has seen for Republicans in the past. One conservative pollster showed Spano with a massive lead over Carlson.

Carlson’s campaign is buoyed by an influx of cash from Democratic groups supporting targeted candidates to flip red seats in state and federal races. With that support, Carlson has outraised Spano by double and has managed to turn a no-chance race into a competitive one.

As a prosecutor, Carlson battled a high-profile case against the orange juice industry over products sold to public schools marketed as 100 percent pure that actually contained additives. She’s well-known in the district and has used her campaign war chest to further bolster that name recognition.

If Carlson wins, or even comes close to winning, it will likely mirror trends nationwide in Democratic-targeted districts and serve as evidence as to whether or not the blue wave is real.

Gus Bilirakis vs. Chris Hunter

The Congressional District 12 race shares some similar trends with the Spano/Carlson matchup. Like Spano, Bilirakis should be able to secure an easy win against Hunter, his Democratic challenger.

More so, Bilirakis’ win should be made all the easier because of his legacy name recognition. Between he and his father, the two have held the district for more than three decades, making the Bilirakis name a staple in the Clearwater district.

Yet in some ways, the race is even more indicative for Democrats this cycle. It didn’t start out competitive. Hunter initially had trouble drawing down party campaign contributions or outside spending on ads supporting him. Money flowed into races Democrats thought they could flip, and CD 12 was not on that list.

It is now. That’s in part due to a series of blunders by the Bilirakis campaign.

His campaign falsely claimed he had a hand in legislation that clamped down on the nationwide opioid epidemic when, in fact, he had co-sponsored legislation that did the opposite.

The campaign also incorrectly claimed it had received 90 percent of its contributions from Floridians. That number was actually 62 percent.

The headlines gave Hunter and the Democratic Party an opening to boost his name recognition and a shot at taking the seat. Hunter was able to use earned media to push his image as a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent, an image that will bode well across party lines in the north Pinellas district.

Hillsborough County Commission

Democrats have a rare opportunity to flip the Hillsborough County Commission to Democrats.

Two Democrats are waging fierce campaigns against Republicans. If both win, the commission will have a Democratic majority for the first time in 14 years.

It’s a tough climb, but if the blue wave is real, Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith could do what Democrats have been trying to do since 2004.

Overman likely has the best shot of pulling out a win over Republican Todd Marks. The two are running for an open seat, removing the giant hurdle that comes with facing an incumbent.

Overman has been a vocal transit activist in the county. Transit and transportation are one of the county’s hottest topics right now as commuters have grown fed up with unnerving traffic congestion.

She’s also served on dozens of community boards over the years, lending to positive name recognition.

Smith’s campaign will be harder to push through the finish line. She faces longtime Commissioner Victor Crist who, along with Marks, has used his campaign finance coffers to deliver a series of attack ads against Smith.

If Smith manages to overcome that and Overman pulls out a win over Marks, a new Democratic makeup on the Commission could fundamentally change priorities in Hillsborough County.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a die-hard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and contentious issues surrounding transit. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also a devoted wife and mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder.

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