NEW PORT RICHEY — Republican Bill Gunter did what front-runners are expected to do — he trounced his competition in the race to replace longtime legislator Mike Fasano, earning 62.5 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s House 36 special primary.
“I’m thankful for the voters who put their trust in me,” Gunter said from his victory party. “This is literally a new race today. I’m going to enjoy this win tonight and get back to work in the morning.”
Gunter, 43, is a former University of Florida football player who said he turned away from a life of alcohol and drug abuse and petty crime when he became a Christian. He earned a masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary and is pastor at Redeemer Community Church.
Gunter’s main competition came from Pasco Republican Executive Committee Chairman Jim Mathieu, who took the unusual tactic of attacking House Speaker Will Weatherford — a Gunter supporter and the county’s most powerful politician — and the party leadership. He criticized Weatherford’s ownership interest in a company that does business with Citizens Property Insurance.
Mathieu said if he won, it would “be a shot across the bow to the next four speakers of the House.” But he garnered just 20 percent of the vote. Jeromy Harding, a 23-year-old insurance agent, came in third with 17-percent of the vote.
Weatherford and presumptive 2017 Speaker Richard Corcoran hosted a fund-raiser for Gunter in Tallahassee that helped bring in around $50,000 from corporations, PACs and lobbyists. The House Republican Campaign Committee also accounted for nearly $30,000 in cash and in-kind contributions.
“This was Bill Gunter’s race to lose,” Fasano said. “With the huge amount of Tallahassee money behind him, there’s no question it was difficult for the other candidates to compete.”
Gunter spent nearly $70,000 to win the nomination, or about $33 for each of his 2,096 votes. Only a handful of his donations came from within District 36.
“Both parties are going to pour a lot of money into this race,” USF Political Scientist Susan MacManus said. “The Democrats see it as a winnable seat, and the Republicans don’t want to lose anything — especially in the speaker’s backyard.”
The Florida Democratic Party has accounted for nearly $20,000 in cash and in-kind donations to the Democratic nominee Amanda Murphy, who was vetted and chosen by the party’s House Victory committee specifically to avoid an expensive primary.
District 36 actually has more registered Democrats than Republicans, plus more than 20,000 voters with no party affiliation. And the district voted for President Barack Obama in the last two elections.
Murphy, a New Port Richey native, is a vice president of investments for Raymond James Financial.
Fasano has refused to endorse any candidate and he said he wants Gunter to stop invoking his name in his campaign ads and flyers. “You’ve got a Democrat and a Republican now, and they should run on their own merits,” he said.
Voter turnout for the special primary barely cracked 10 percent, even with two-thirds of the vote coming from mail-in ballots.
The special election is Oct. 15.