In this coastal Pinellas swing district, there’s more than meets the eye

In Florida politics, there’s always more to the story.

Going into Election Night, Rep. Jennifer Webb says she won’t be taking anything for granted — despite dramatic polling and fundraising leads or the seemingly paltry campaign coffers of her opponent, former St. Pete Beach City Commissioner Linda Chaney.

That’s because in Florida politics, there’s always more to the story – especially in swing districts like hers, Florida’s 69th House District, which mainly covers coastal areas of Pinellas County.

Going into Election Day, here’s a bit about the district and where things stand.

The District: Florida’s swingin’ 69th

Swing districts aren’t much of a thing these days, but this is one of them. 

When now-St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman, a Democrat, vacated the seat in 2010, now-County Commissioner Kathleen Peters, a Republican, picked it up. Webb challenged Peters in 2016 and lost, but won in 2018 against Republican Ray Blacklidge.

There are 45,559 registered Republicans, 44,592 registered Democrats and 34,026 NPAs, and since 2018, the Democratic voter rolls have grown at a quicker clip than that of the GOP.

“That district has moved a little more Democratic since [Webb] won, and that benefits her,” said Democratic political consultant Bryan Farris.

The district encompasses Gulfport, South Pasadena, Seminole, parts of west St. Pete, Lealman and the Pinellas Beaches from Tierra Verde north to Madeira Beach.

It’s home to a lot of retirees and tourism is a key economic driver.

The candidates

Before getting elected, Webb served as Director of Community Partnerships with the University of South Florida, a role that put her face to face with countless businesses and nonprofits with the aim of helping underserved communities. 

Before getting her seat on the St. Pete Beach City Commission, Chaney was a medical entrepreneur who ran a mobile mammography lab.

Both women tout a long history of community involvement that equips them for the job.

Where things stand

For the most part, it looks as if Webb’s got this – especially if you’re comparing their fundraising.

Take the first half of October: Webb not only outraised Chaney by more than $6,000 ($15,331 to $9,245), but she vastly outspent her to the tune of a record $112,084. In that same period, Chaney spent just $1,195. 

Local polling also suggests a win for the incumbent. A St. Pete Polls survey conducted Oct. 17-18 had Webb leading Chaney by nearly 10 points. (That same poll also had Vice President Joe Biden up almost 15 points over President Donald Trump among voters in the district.) The survey suggested that around 23% of registered Republicans there planned to vote for Webb, while just 10% of Democrats planned to vote for Chaney.

“I think Webb wins it,” said Farris, the Democratic consultant. “In Pinellas County as a whole, Democrats are over-performing.”

Of course, there’s a twist

In a phone conversation last week, Webb said she thinks the race is closer than polling suggests, and Chaney’s anemic money situation doesn’t tell the whole story.

That’s because the state GOP is targeting Webb and other Democrats running in competitive House districts with countless attack ads via TV and mail. The ads attempt to tie candidates like Webb to the Florida Democratic Party receiving federal Paycheck Protection Program loan money, which the party ultimately gave back, and which benefited none of the candidates. 

“There are no legislative candidates that have received PPP money, period,” Farris said.

Webb believes the party has spent upward of $2 million attacking her alone – so it’s no wonder she’s not claiming victory just yet.

If the GOP wins the seat back, it’s because of candidate recruitment and the fact that the Speaker-Designate (Chris Sprowls) made sure every resource was made available for the fight,” said Republican consultant Anthony Pedicini, who said he counts Chaney among hist first clients and views her as a high-quality contender. He adds that GOP performance tends to be strong in the district.

Yet with Democrats expected to perform well throughout Pinellas County and Webb’s own strengths, the attacks may not be enough to move the needle.

“I think it’s going to hurt with some voters,” Farris said. “For the most part I think the press has done a decent job of explaining why that’s not an issue.”

Environment is king

When it comes to the issues, both Webb and Chaney have kept environmental conservation – namely, clean water protections – at center stage. 

With all its miles of coastline and reliance on being a destination for millions of people who pay good money to experience its natural beauty, HD 69 sees environmental advocacy on both sides of the aisle. 

Naturally, both candidates say they are pro-environment.

Webb has a notable record on the environment from her time in the Legislature, including co-sponsoring an anti-fracking bill, supporting Florida’s Climate Resiliency Research Program and helping to get funding for much-needed water infrastructure projects in her district.

Will her record get GOP voters to cross party lines? Judging by the number of pro-Webb signs you’ll see in places like St. Pete Beach, perhaps.

Chaney points to her past efforts to curb over-development on St. Pete Beach and her founding of the city’s Environmental Stewardship Board.

The candidates differ on plenty of other issues. Chaney’s platform includes GOP favorites like cutting regulations and taxes. Webb, meanwhile, supports a state-level coronavirus relief package, more robust public education funding and expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. 

Less interesting: the support spread

Endorsements, as you might expect, fell mostly along party lines. 

Webb received endorsements from local Dems like Pinellas County Commissioners Charlie Justice, Janet Long and Ken Welch, as well as Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson and others. 

Chaney, meanwhile, saw endorsements from Republican electeds like incoming House Speaker Sprowls, Sen. Jeff Brandes and Rep. Chris Latvala.

The one notable difference was that the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which endorsed dozens of other Florida State House candidates, most of them Republican, announced it was backing Webb (and seven other Dems vying for Florida House seats) over Chaney.

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw is a Florida-based journalist, writer and editor. She is a former staff writer at the Tampa Tribune news/politics editor at Creative Loafing Tampa Bay.

One comment

  • Anne Flaherty

    November 2, 2020 at 9:19 am

    It’s the NPA’s who will turn this county blue. We’re counting on them and YOU to get to the polls on Tuesday and show them all that Florida is a BLUE state and we’ll work for every vote to keep our water clean, our children safe and our future strong in this state. The trump party is dead – may they never rest in peace

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