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Republican battle about to heat up in quest to take on Geraldine Thompson in HD 44

Lee Steinhauer is entering race; Bobby Olszewski waits in the wings.

Few 2020 races are likely to be hotter than that in Orange County’s House District 44 where Republicans are lining up to try to oust Democratic state Rep. Geraldine Thompson and win back a seat long held by the GOP.

Lee Steinhauer, president of the government affairs and land use law firm the Steinhauer Group, is expected to enter the Republican contest Monday for the southwestern Orange County district.

Businessman and private Christian college president Bruno Portigliatti kicked off his Republican campaign in August by raising $65,000, sending a warning to others that he will have a well-financed campaign.

Orlando lawyer Frank Blanco, a former Florida Senate staffer, has been biding time, waiting to roll what he promises will be a formidable campaign with connections to Central Florida’s lodging industry.

And they all await several others who are exploring or actively preparing to run, most notably the last Republican to hold the seat, Bobby Olszewski. He is widely expected to enter the race for another shot at Thompson, who took him out in the 2018 election.

“Naturally, every seat in the Florida House of Representatives is important; however, 44 is a seat that we seek to retake control of because of its strong history of being a Republican seat,” said Orange County Republican Party Chair Charles Hart. “We still have a slight voter registration advantage. Unfortunately, in 2018, House District 44 was a casualty of the “Blue Wave.”

Or of Thompson, a veteran campaigner who breezed through a 2018 primary and then found a way to work to the evolving demographics of western Orange County.

“Obviously, Geraldine pulled a great campaign last cycle. She showed everybody there is a path to victory there for the Democrats. Orange County is changing over time and it is not the Republican stronghold it used to be,” said Orange County Democratic Chair Wes Hodge. “I think Republicans are going to put up a good fight, but we will step up to help make sure we keep that seat in 2020.”

Olszewski showed in winning the seat in 2017 that he can draw a populist Republican vote and overcome powerful and well-financed primary opponents, in a district where he once served as a Winter Garden City Commissioner.

Steinhauer is a well-known lawyer and lobbyist who represents the Greater Orlando Builders Association and the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando.

Portigliatti ran for the seat in a 2017 special election, losing the primary to Olszewski, but gaining key experience. He’s lined up some key campaign consultants, and his first-month fundraising showed what many expected: access to big money this time.

Blanco, 36, a criminal defense lawyer, might be a wildcard in the race. He filed for the seat in January but has essentially run a dormant campaign since.

A self-described fiscal conservative, small-government, Constitutional Republican, Blanco hopes to differentiate himself with more moderate views on such issues ranging as gay rights, recreational marijuana, to criminal justice reform, perhaps key differences in a district that is growing younger and bluer demographically.

Essentially, his views on smaller government means a government that stays out of people’s lives, and that includes reducing prison populations of non-violent offenders. Those smaller government views lead him to support such things as supporting gay rights and legalizing recreational marijuana, yet also leave him taking a firm position against gun control measures, and as a strong supporter of charter schools and other forms of school choice.

“I think ideologically speaking, there is a lot of common ground between me and Bruno and Bobby. I think the key differences is that when the conversation becomes: well, which one of the candidates will provide a vision for our party and our ideology that will speak not only to our voters but also voters in all political counties,” Blanco said. “While Bruno and Bobby are solid conservatives, and I applaud them on that, I think a lot of what I believe in as far social issues will appeal to voters in the general election.”

He also has a family connection he hopes will lead to more institutional Republican support, and campaign money. His wife Rachel is a granddaughter of timeshare magnate David Siegel, one of the richest and most influential leaders in Central Florida. Blanco is expecting to be able to compete in a Republican primary if he can raise $75,000, and said he has a lot of people “ready to hit the ground running” to raise money.

HD 44 covers southwestern Orange County from south Winter Garden and Ocoee through the tourism district including Universal Orlando, International Drive and Walt Disney World. That includes large numbers of time share complexes, including the headquarters for Siegel’s international Westgate Resorts.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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