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In HD 39, the ‘blue wave’ barely causes a ripple

A ‘blue wave’ Democrats in Polk and Osceola counties had hoped for Tuesday barely made a ripple as Republican newcomer Josie Tomkow won over Democrat Ricky Shirah with a 60 percent victory in the special election for Florida House District 39.

The results contrasted with the surprise February election victory in Sarasota County in which Democrat Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat, defeated Republican James Buchanan and Libertarian Alison Foxall.

Tuesday’s election was to fill a vacancy incurred in November when then-Rep. Neil Combee, a Polk City Republican, resigned to accept a job with the USDA. Combee recently resigned the post to run for Congress.

Republicans said Wednesday the Tomkow victory is a bellwether for the state come November. Democrats said the wave is still building. A noted professor and columnist said it’s too early.

“This is a good snapshot of the fall elections,” said J.C. Martin, chairman of the Polk County Republican Party. “This is a district along I-4 and the I-4 Corridor has always been a barometer for Florida and the nation.”

Local Democrats, with very little help from the state party, had staged a last-minute effort for Shira, in a district that is more Republican but had more voters with no party than those in either party.

“This is a good sign that people, especially the unaffiliated, are going for Republican policies,” Martin said. “Neither party in the district had more than 40 Percent registration, and yet 60 percent of the vote went to someone who never ran for office and was never heard of before against a well-known candidate.”

Karen Welzel of Winter Haven, a former chair of the Polk County Democratic Party, blamed Shira’s loss, not on Republican ideologies, but on the massive war chest Tomkow ‘s campaign had amassed. Tomkow had received $168,185 to Shira’s $15,381.

“Unfortunately, money is important. She had big-time Republican fundraisers, the NRA and her connections to Neil Combee, Welzel said of Tomkow’s victory. “Statewide we have won more special elections this year by far,” Welzel said. “On the same day we lost this one, Javier Fernandez (a Democrat) was elected in South Florida. In a Republican district. Believe me; the blue wave is coming.”

“We did reach out to the state party to ask for help, but we knew there was not a lot of money and that they had to spend,” she said. “But we spent three months of grassroots campaign, and we added many precinct workers.”

Ironically, Welzel had run in a different house district in 2012 against a Republican incumbent who had ten times the amount of campaign money that she had without state Democratic Party funding and came within 2 percent of winning the race,

“The ‘Blue Wave is a bit of a ghost,” said Bruce Anderson a political-science professor at Florida Southern College and columnist in Lakeland. But so is the assumption that the District 39 special election is a repudiation of it, he had added.

“Winning in one district is not a bellwether. Thirty-nine is a stable largely Republican District. We know who the district was drawn for,” Anderson said referring to Combee. “And he kept his head down and locked in his seat.”

People will tend to vote for the person in that seat, he said. And Tuesday’s election is no indicator of how the I-4 Corridor will go in November

Democrats have had their victories mostly in open seats. Overall, Anderson said it is too early to predict a trend for the November elections.

“Republicans, I suspect, will continue to win where there is a long history of Republican incumbents. But if it is an open seat Democrats may win out.”

In HD 39, however, almost the same race will begin again in November, likely with the same candidates. Shira has said he will be a candidate for District 39 in the general election, which will decide who will serve a full two-year term.

Written By

Former Ledger of Lakeland columnist Bill Rufty is Central Florida political correspondent for SaintPetersBlog and Florida Politics. Rufty had been with the Ledger from 1985-2015, where, as political editor, he covered a wide range of beats, including local and state politics, the Lakeland City Commission, and the Florida Legislature. Ledger editor Lenore Devore said about Rufty’s 30-year career: “[He is] a man full of knowledge, a polling expert and a war history buff … who has a steel trap in his brain, remembering details most of us have long since forgotten.”

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