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GOP Aiming to Pick Up Justice’s Senate Seat

Former House Speaker John Thrasher’s victory in a Senate Republican primary is convincing some GOP leaders that comebacks are possible – despite an apparently angry electorate.

Jack Latvala sure hopes so.

The former four-term Pinellas County senator is trying to mirror Thrasher’s success by winning the state Senate seat now held by Democrat Charlie Justice, who is a candidate for Congress.

“By the time I’m on the ballot, I would have been out of office eight years,” said Latvala, 57, who left the Senate in 2002 after eight years in Tallahassee. “I’m not an incumbent. But a lot of people remember me and I think they need some help up in Tallahassee.”

Latvala’s Democratic opponent is Nina Hayden, elected last fall to the Pinellas County School Board. An attorney with the county’s public defender’s office, Hayden, 35, said she’s running as a “voice of fresh air” against a veteran politician.

“We’ve got problems in Tallahassee, in part, because you get the same people being elected over and over and over again,” Hayden said. “The last time (Latvala) was there, we still had a fairly strong economy. Now you need someone who can address a bad budget and find new revenue sources.”

Republicans have held 26 seats in the 40-member Florida Senate since 2002, but both parties predict those numbers will change in the 2010 contests. Democrats hope to raise $6 million for Senate races, alone, and talk of narrowing the 26-14 seat gap.

But Republicans counter, saying they see the possibility of building on their existing lead – with Justice’s seat the most likely pickup.

While Hayden reported no campaign contributions when she filed her first report June 30 – the most recent available – Latvala had raised $229,750 at the time, records show. Underscoring Latvala’s connections to the Capitol and his work as a political consultant, 10 percent of his cash came from Tallahassee, according to a News Service of Florida analysis.

Senate District 16 spans Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and stands potentially as one of the most competitive districts in Florida. Thirty-eight percent of voters are registered Republicans to 37 percent Democrats, with the two parties separated by only about 1,000 voters.

The critical difference: the 24 percent of district voters who are independent or other party registrants.

The district has shifted regularly in recent years. Justice won the seat in 2006 replacing term-limited Republican Jim Sebesta who succeeded Gov. Charlie Crist, in the seat. Crist had beaten longtime Democrat Helen Gordon Davis of Tampa.

Voters in the district narrowly supported Barack Obama over Republican John McCain in last fall’s presidential contest. In state contests, the district’s balance may have been underscored in 2006 when Republican Bill McCollum beat Democrat Skip Campbell by 10 percentage points for attorney general while Democrat Alex Sink defeated Republican Tom Lee by five percent for chief financial officer.

“It’s certainly a seat we want to hold,” said Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, who is leading Senate Democratic campaign efforts. “We believe the district has moved more Democratic over the years, and that should help us. People want change.”

In campaign appearances, Hayden has tried to push that theme.

Citing the criminal charges stemming from former House Speaker Ray Sansom’s steering millions of dollars in taxpayer money to a community college in his district, Hayden also said voters want “to return integrity to Tallahassee.”

But Thrasher’s win Tuesday in a four-man Republican primary for a Jacksonville-area Senate seat may suggest that Florida voters also may have no problem returning a veteran lawmaker to the Capitol.

“I’ve been out of office the past few years, so I don’t know much about what occurred that may be frustrating people about Tallahassee,” Latvala said. “But I know the process, and have a record of accomplishment.”

The district takes in a portion of Latvala’s old Senate district – but includes parts of St. Petersburg and South Tampa that the former lawmaker did not represent. And while a political newcomer, Hayden was elected to one of three countywide seats on the seven member Pinellas School Board.

Voters will decide at least 23 Senate seats in fall 2010. Even-numbered Senate districts are up for grabs, along with three seats added to the ballot when incumbents not facing re-election including Justice, announced plans to run for other offices.

Seven Republican senators are leaving through term limits, compared with only one Democrat. But along with Justice’s move, Sens. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Dave Aronberg of Greenacres, who wouldn’t have faced re-election until 2012, are running for attorney general. Rich will now be forced to defend those seats.

Senate Democrats two years ago raised and spent $5 million on campaigns but came away with no new seats. Despite a surge in Democratic voting strength that helped Obama carry Florida and unseat two incumbent Republican congressman, only one state House seat shifted to the Democratic fold in down-ballot races.

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