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- 2012 - July - 19th -

Attention focuses on 5 Senate races

by Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida

The once-a-decade redistricting process has created a smorgasbord of Senate races this year, with only eight incumbents headed back to Tallahassee unopposed.

Much of the attention in the 32 other districts focuses on a relatively small number of battlegrounds. Those races have been shaped by factors such as new boundaries, the exodus of incumbents and, in some cases, Senate leadership maneuvering.

Here are five Senate races that bear watching as the Aug. 14 primaries and the Nov. 6 general election draw closer.

• District 4. Former Rep. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach) has been out of the Legislature since 2008, but he has long made clear that he wants a Senate seat. Rep. Mike Weinstein (R-Jacksonville) entered the District 4 race in April, after he was drawn into the same House district as another incumbent and friend, Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville).

That is only one of the contrasts between the pair.

Bean has touted advertisements from former Gov. Jeb Bush and has the support of other prominent Republican figures such as former state party Chairman Tom Slade and Sen. John Thrasher.

Weinstein, meanwhile, has deep roots in Jacksonville political circles, serving as a top aide to former State Attorney and Mayor Ed Austin — whose protégé also included University of North Florida President and former Mayor John Delaney.

The race could be part of a broader proxylike fight between Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) and Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart), who are trying to line up support to become Senate president in 2016. Bean has received help from a political committee with ties to Negron, while Weinstein has received help from a committee and a company connected to Latvala.

The district includes all of Nassau County and a large part of Duval County, with the majority of the population in Duval. Democrat Nancy Soderberg of Jacksonville Beach awaits the primary winner in the general election, though the district has been a GOP stronghold in recent years.

• District 8. Volusia County has traditionally been a swing voting area in the critical Interstate 4 corridor. The new boundaries of Senate District 8 — with Volusia at its heart — reflect that.

Voters within the district narrowly supported Republican Rick Scott in the 2010 gubernatorial election and Democrat Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race.

That has set up a clash in this fall’s general election between Rep. Dorothy Hukill (R-Port Orange) and Volusia County Council Chairman Frank Bruno, a Democrat. Both parties see an opportunity in the race, as longtime Sen. Evelyn Lynn (R-Ormond Beach) leaves the Legislature because of term limits.

Hukill worked her way through the House to become a top lieutenant to outgoing Speaker Dean Cannon, including serving the past two years as chairwoman of the Economic Affairs Committee.

Bruno, meanwhile, serves in a role akin to a county mayor and has received backing from some high-powered Volusia businesspeople, such as insurance executive and former House Speaker Hyatt Brown.

While much of the district’s population is in Volusia County, the boundaries also stretch through a large swath of Marion County. That could help Hukill because Marion has been friendly territory for Republican legislative candidates in recent years. The Florida Democratic Party, meanwhile, has made more than $78,000 in in-kind contributions to Bruno’s campaign, with the aid going for such things as staffing.

• District 22. The intraparty duel between Latvala and Negron to become Senate president in 2016 could play a large role in the Tampa Bay-area Republican primary between St. Petersburg Reps. Jeff Brandes and Jim Frishe.

Latvala and Frishe are close — close enough that Latvala even briefly considered switching races with Frishe to take on Brandes.

The Tampa Bay Times, meanwhile, reported that a group called Accountability in Government sent out negative mailers about Frishe. Accountability in Government has received money from a web of other groups, including a committee headed by Brandes and a political fund with ties to Negron and other senators, according to the Times.

Brandes, one of the wealthiest members of the Legislature, has loaned his campaign $500,000 and likely will be able to outspend Frishe.

Both candidates have received support from high-profile players in Tallahassee. As an example, Frishe has received contributions from affiliates of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, while Brandes has received backing from companies related to Walt Disney World.

The district, which has an open seat because Sen. Dennis Jones faces term limits, includes southern Pinellas County and part of western Hillsborough County. The winner of the Republican primary is almost certain to be elected because the only other candidate is write-in Raymond Alan Baker.

• District 24. Incumbent Sen. Ronda Storms’ surprise announcement in May that she would not seek re-election has led to a campaign sprint between Rep. Rachel Burgin (R-Riverview) and former Senate President Tom Lee (R-Brandon).

The primary also could become one of the nastiest races in the state. Some lobbyists still loathe Lee for actions that targeted the lobbying industry while he served as president from 2004-06.

A group linked to a lobbyist sent out a mail piece that attacked Lee’s personal life, leading even state Republican Chairman Lenny Curry to issue a statement Tuesday that said there is an “understood rule in politics that families are off limits, and the recent attacks on Republican Senate candidate Tom Lee in Hillsborough County have undoubtedly crossed that line “

Lee, who had largely been on the political sidelines since running unsuccessfully for state chief financial officer in 2006, announced he would try to return to the Senate after Storms decided to run for Hillsborough County property appraiser.

Burgin, who has served in the House since 2008, is a social conservative who is perhaps best known for sponsoring bills aimed at restricting abortion.

The district includes much of the eastern half of Hillsborough County and is a Republican stronghold. The winner of the primary will face Democrat Elizabeth Belcher of Seffner and write-in Randolph Link of Plant City in the general election.

• District 34. The coastal district in northern Broward and southern Palm Beach counties is a poster child for the effects of redistricting.

In 2010, Boca Raton Democrat Maria Sachs ran unopposed for a Senate seat, while Fort Lauderdale Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff won her Senate race by 20 percentage points. But this year, after their districts were redrawn, Sachs and Bogdanoff are battling for a seat that is targeted by both parties.

Bogdanoff, who also faces a Republican primary against West Palm Beach Republican Mike Lameyer, has a large fund-raising edge over Sachs.

The Republican has received backing from a wide range of industries and business groups, such as retailers. Sachs supporters include trial lawyers and some union organizations.

The district’s boundaries would appear to benefit Sachs. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans, with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink beating Scott in the area in 2010 and Obama beating GOP presidential candidate John McCain in 2008.

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