Someone is polling the St. Petersburg mayoral race, and the inclusion of some potential candidates is telling.
The poll asked about Republicans Robert Blackmon, a current St. Pete City Council member; Sen. Jeff Brandes; and Deveron Gibbons, a member of the St. Petersburg College Board of Trustees; as well as candidates who have already announced bids, including City Council member Darden Rice, former Rep. Wengay Newton, and former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch.
I wish I could get into what the polling found. But I don’t know who did it or their motives, which leaves the poll’s veracity under speculation. However, it’s worth noting who was included … and who wasn’t.
Let’s start with Blackmon (who told Florida Politics the poll did not come from him.)
So far, no Republican has officially announced an intention to run for Mayor, leaving open plenty of speculation about who could be a viable contender for the center-right lane.
Blackmon would seem to fit that bill. He ran for City Council in 2019 on a bipartisan platform that earned him endorsements from both sides of the aisle.
That included would-be mayoral race foe, Rice. Rice is widely believed among St. Pete politics insiders to have been behind Blackmon from the start and not only publicly endorsed him but gave a full-throated fundraising pitch at his campaign kickoff party.
The bipartisan approach lends well for a potential mayoral bid in a city that has become more liberal over the past several years.
Running as a Republican in a blue city will be a challenge. However, a moderate Republican could find success by capitalizing on voters still reluctant to embrace the overtly progressive ideals Rice and Welch have already personified.
But Blackmon is still a question mark. He told Florida Politics previously that he was honored to be in conversations about running, but he stopped short of saying he would jump in. He would also face a much tougher challenge this year than he did two years ago when his campaign was buoyed by the unexpected departure of Scott Orsini from the race, who had been a favorite, and by running against a candidate in John Hornbeck who largely turned out to be a tomato can.
And if he did run, the last election cycle could call into question his moderate approach. One glaring example is Blackmon’s support for School Board candidate Stephanie Meyer, a hyper-conservative who ran on a strict school choice platform and shared an office with another Republican, Tammy Vasquez, who unsuccessfully challenged Democrat Charlie Justice on the Pinellas County Commission. It’s the type of endorsement ripe for negative campaign mailers and advertisements tying Blackmon to the Trump wing of the Republican Party.
But, even that might be an avoidable kiss of death. Tying moderates to former President Donald Trump already proved to be feckless. One example: Ed Montanari and the barrage of campaign mailers painting him with the Trump brush.
Speaking of Montanari. He wasn’t included in polling.
That’s another telling signal of what to expect from conservatives in the mayoral contest. Arguably, Montanari would have the strongest shot at claiming City Hall for Republicans, who haven’t held the office since former Mayor Bill Foster lost to Kriseman nearly eight years ago.
Montanari hasn’t said whether he’s considering a bid, but he would undoubtedly be welcomed among his party if he decided to throw his name in.
There’s also no Vincent Nowicki, who talked to Bay News 9 about running days ago. Democrat Michael Ingram is also omitted. They are two candidates who have actually announced.
Moving on to Gibbons. He’s no stranger to the St. Petersburg community and would offer a counter to Welch among more moderate or conservative Black voters. An added bonus, Gibbons’ service on the SPC Board of Trustees, would undoubtedly provide him a policy platform from which to launch.
But he faces a split-vote scenario against Newton, a Democrat. The mayoral race is technically nonpartisan, so both would appear on the August ballot. Newton is already seen as a “conservative” counter to Welch in the Black community and has plenty of conservative bona fides remaining from his support for former Mayor Rick Baker four years ago.
And then there’s Brandes. His libertarian bent plays well among less partisan Democrats. He has a track record of supporting criminal justice reform in the Senate. He also has solid name recognition citywide.
But the major question mark for Brandes is whether he’s even interested. So far, he has said he’s not.
Watch now for whether speculation continues for Blackmon, Gibbons and Brandes, and whether that spurs an official announcement.
But, as I’ve previously mulled, also watch for a potential late entry into the mayoral race’s center-right lane, possibly from someone with a business background who could bring a lot of money and an executive approach to the race.