Joe Henderson: Unopposed candidates create ‘great void’ in local politics

empty voting booths (Large)

Elections are supposed to be about choices, but after candidate qualifying ended in Florida last week, many elections are already decided.

Voters in 11 districts won’t get to choose their state senator because the incumbent faces no opposition — seven Republicans and four Democrats, if you’re keeping score. And in Senate District 24, Pinellas County Republican incumbent Jeff Brandes faces only a write-in candidate.

The theme is the same in the state House, where 29 candidates face no opposition — 16 Republicans, 13 Democrats.

Twelve of 19 state attorney races are over before they start. Fourteen of 19 public defenders can hold victory parties. Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee is a winner. So are elections supervisor Craig Latimer, tax collector Doug Belden and County Commissioner Les Miller.

Three of the seven county commission races in Pinellas County didn’t make it to November, either. The Pinellas clerk of courts race ended on qualifying day.

What gives?

I don’t think there is one factor that explains it all.

In most, if not all, of those cases, opponents no doubt sized up the incumbent and the makeup of the district and decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of trying to raise enough money to compete.

Districts for statewide races are drawn with such eerie precision it’s almost too easy to predict the winner before the campaign even begins. Court-ordered redistricting now in effect may change some of that, but probably not all of it. That has a major dampening effect on an underdog pondering a challenge.

Voter apathy needs to be near the top of the list, too.

While debating the difference between Hillary and Trump in a bar might get you punched in the nose, local and even statewide races don’t have the same impact. I think it’s a safe bet many voters can’t name their state senator or representative, even though those elected officials have a much more direct impact than someone running for president.

It takes a special something to get the attention of voters these days. A scandal might do it, as former Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner learned in 2012. Allegations that he sent porn to a female staffer in his office turned into a political tsunami that put a spotlight on a race that otherwise would have been relatively obscure.

But that’s the system we have now.

The major political parties in this state have become adept at speaking to themselves and rallying those few who give a hoot, but there is a great void out there waiting to be addressed that could change the way things get done.

Republicans have been much better than Democrats at working the system and getting what they want. That won’t change until opponents figure out how to make people understand that the closer to home a race is, the more they need to pay attention.


Joe Henderson has had a 45-year career in newspapers, including the last nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. He has covered a large variety of things, primarily in sports but also hard news. The two intertwined in the decade-long search to bring Major League Baseball to the area. Henderson was also City Hall reporter for two years and covered all sides of the sales tax issue that ultimately led to the construction of Raymond James Stadium. He served as a full-time sports columnist for about 10 years before moving to the metro news columnist for the last 4 ½ years. Henderson has numerous local, state and national writing awards. He has been married to his wife, Elaine, for nearly 35 years and has two grown sons — Ben and Patrick.

Joe Henderson

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.


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