NEW PORT RICHEY — For the first time in nearly two decades, Pasco County will send a Democrat to Tallahassee.
Amanda Murphy won a narrow victory in Tuesday’s special election over Republican Bill Gunter. She will replace longtime legislator Mike Fasano, who resigned earlier this year to become Pasco County tax collector after 19 years representing west Pasco voters.
“I hope they see no difference with me taking the helm,” Murphy said. “I hope they feel as much love from me as they felt from Mike Fasano. I want to keep up his tradition of constituent services — otherwise I’ll be in trouble.”
Murphy will take office in early November but will be up for reelection in 2014.
In a district that leans Democratic and voted twice for President Barack Obama, the race was decided by the more than 3,000 unaffiliated voters. The two candidates were separated by only 305 votes, according to unofficial returns. The slim margin is not enough to trigger an automatic recount.
The special election attracted the kind of money and statewide attention rarely seen for a single House race. The Florida Democratic Party poured in excess of $78,000 in cash and in-kind contributions into Murphy’s campaign — and the state GOP still outspent them three-to-one. The Republican Party of Florida spent more than $250,000 to help get Gunter elected.
University of South Florida Political Scientist Susan MacManus said the constant stream of attack ads and mailers likely made little difference in the outcome of the race, where voter turnout topped out at 20 percent.
“From the get-go, everyone will say this was a battle for turnout,” MacManus said. “It’s a signal to state party leaders that it’s possible to get the same turnout in a midterm election they got in a presidential election.”
While Republicans turned out in larger numbers, independent voters likely swung the election for Murphy.
“It helps that she’s a woman,” MacManus said. “This district has an older constituency, and there are more women voters.”
Gunter won a three-way primary battle in September, beating the chairman of the Pasco Republican Executive Committee. His loss is a stinging defeat to House leadership — namely Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and future Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity — who helped steer more than $100,000 from corporations, PACs and lobbyists to Gunter.
Democrats rallied around Murphy, a vice president for Raymond James and first time candidate who had garnered endorsements from both major newspapers. She also boasted the endorsement of Fasano, which was considered a game-changer.
He went public with his support after an electioneering committee used his name in a direct mail advertisement attacking the Democrat. The committee, Citizens for Fairness, spent $100,000 on the race. Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross also inserted himself into the race, spending $75,000 on last-minute attack ads on Murphy through his PAC, Florida Jobs First.
Murphy said she hopes her win sends a message “that voters are sick and tired of the garbage and people spending $1 million to spread lies about someone.”
Fasano said he was elated for Murphy. “The voters of west Pasco sent a clear message to House leadership — who happens to be from Pasco County — that they are not happy with how things are being run in Tallahassee.”