Tuesday's election could shift the ground for local Democrats and Republicans in Hillsborough County in very different ways.
By winning their races for property appraiser and elections supervisor, Bob Henriquez and Craig Latimer bucked the tide of Republican victories in countywide races. While they clearly benefited from the Democrats' aggressive voter turnout effort, they also attracted contributions and votes from Republicans who looked beyond partisan lines for capable, even-tempered leaders.
As constitutional officers, the two assume largely ministerial jobs that do not and should not lend to partisan image-building. But they will raise the profile of Democrats and stand to recast the party's place and relevance in Hillsborough politics. Constitutional posts can further or break a political career; ask former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who was first elections supervisor, or Buddy Johnson, who left the same job in disgrace. The professionalism of the people who hold these county offices shapes public perceptions that trickle down the ballot.
The 2012 election also should ease the grip that far-right Republicans have on the local party. Social conservatives were poised to run the table in the August primary. But Rep. Rachel Burgin, who sought a state Senate seat; John Grant III, who ran for county judge; and former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, who ran for circuit judge, all appealed to social conservatives and lost to more moderate challengers. Outgoing Sen. Ronda Storms won the August primary for property appraiser, but her primary opponent was embroiled in a sex scandal. She lost badly to Henriquez on Tuesday.
Whether local Democrats can consolidate the gains Henriquez and Latimer made and begin to build a bench of credible candidates remains to be seen. But moderate Republicans are clearly willing to put aside party labels at the county level. And local Democrats have figured out how to turn out the early vote, which is increasingly important. Nearly two-thirds of the votes in Hillsborough's general election were cast before Election Day.
The makeup of Republican officeholders in Hillsborough is much more moderate than it has been in recent history. Urban Republicans have reasserted themselves, dampening not only the social warriors but tea party extremists. But the transition is in flux, and many Republican officeholders are unsure where the power base is heading. This is a challenge for the party and an opportunity for Democrats, whose history in Hillsborough is also an example of taking power too much for granted.