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Incumbents poised for victory in Pinellas Commission, Sheriff races

Pinellas County Sheriff has the biggest lead among candidates in the poll.

A new poll shows Pinellas County incumbents sailing to reelection next month.

In a St. Pete Polls survey out Thursday, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice commands a 14 point lead over his Republican challenger, Tammy Vasquez, with a 52% to 38% margin in District 3. In District 1, Commissioner Janet Long holds an eight point lead over her Republican challenger, former Rep. Larry Ahern, at 50% to 42%.

Republican Sheriff Bob Gualtieri commands the biggest lead, more than 17 points at 55.5% to 38% over Democrat Eliseo Santana.

Perhaps due to name recognition, Long’s race is shaping up to be the most competitive as she faces a longtime state Representative who represented the same House District Long also formerly held, then-House District 51. Ahern held the seat from 2010 until 2012. He then served from 2012 until 2018 in Florida House District 66. Long preceded Ahern in HD 51 from 2006 until 2010.

While the race is closer than Justice’s, Long’s eight point lead puts her on a clear path to reelection, and she has the money to get over the finish line Nov. 3. Long has raised nearly $178,000 as of the most recent campaign finance reports available with the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections. Ahern has raised less than $97,000. Meanwhile, Long retains nearly $86,000 for the final weeks of the campaign while Ahern retains just $25,000.

Justice faces a political newcomer in Vasquez, who challenged him after growing frustrated with the commission’s dealings on the county’s COVID-19 response. Vasquez owns Bark Life, a small business that sells pet supplies and provides dog grooming services. Like other similar businesses, Vasquez had to temporarily shut down grooming services as the county upheld a state order from Gov. Ron DeSantis declaring them non-essential. Vasquez argued the county should have allowed services to continue. However, while the Governor’s order permitted local governments to be more restrictive, they were not allowed to be less restrictive.

While Justice’s lead in the latest poll is substantial, Vasquez has kept competitive in the money race, bringing in just $19,000 less than Justice. Vasquez raised more than $80,000 compared to Justice’s nearly $100,000. Both have a signifiant amount of their hauls still available with about $50,000 on hand for Justice and $45,000 for Vasquez.

Both incumbent Democrats are leading largely based on partisan crossover appeal. While Ahern leads among Republican voters with 72% support, 20% support Long. However, more Democrats, 78% support Long with only 14% crossing party lines to support Ahern. Likewise, Justice claims 80% support among Democrats with only 11% supporting Vasquez while 21% of Republicans indicated support for Justice.

Gualtieri appears to have the easiest path to victory in the poll, buoyed by both incumbency and a massive fundraising lead. Gualtieri has raised more than $130,000 while Santana has brought in just over $47,000. Of that, Santana retains less than $10,000 while Gualtieri has nearly $39,000 still on hand.

Santana faced a flurry of backlash earlier this month after sending mailers to voters accusing Gualtieri of mismanaging rape cases. The mailers, paid for by the Florida Democratic Party, used jarring images depicting rape victims and included fine print recommending voters reelect Rep. Jennifer Webb and elect Jessica Harrington to House District 64.

Webb rescinded her endorsement for Santana after the ads and both she and Harrington condemned the politicization of rape victims.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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