Joe Gruters knew that an anti-Democrat wave was washing over the country, but he didn’t imagine it would have the effect that it did in the Nov. 2 election.
“We live in a hotbed of political activists,” said the Republican Party of Sarasota County chairman. “We got the vote out, and we scored some big victories.”
Every Republican on the Sarasota County ballot won his or her race. Gruters said he believes that’s a first for the county. (The Sarasota Supervisor of Elections office was not able to confirm that.)
“I knew we had a lot of energy on our side, but I’m surprised we carried every race,” said Gruters.
Rita Ferrandino, Sarasota County Democratic Party chairwoman, was fully aware of the national mood.
“We knew it was going to be an uphill battle,” she said.
It wasn’t surprising that candidates such as U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan and County Commissioners Joe Barbetta and Nora Patterson won their races handily (all three candidates won more than 60% of the vote
in their races; see box on Page 2A).
The biggest surprise of the night was Republican challenger Ray Pilon, who defeated incumbent Democrat Keith Fitzgerald in the State House District 69 race.
Pilon, a former county commissioner, had two unsuccessful runs for Sarasota County sheriff, but he put together a successful campaign this time around, winning the seat with 51.4% of the vote in Sarasota County.
“We knew Ray’s race was going to be close,” said Gruters. “Ray was a tenacious campaigner. He was relentless.”
Ferrandino said that race was the most devastating for her.
“What a loss to our community,” she said. “Keith really cared and really took the job seriously.”
The Democratic chairwoman attributed the defeat to $200,000 she said the state Republican Party pumped into Pilon’s campaign in the past two weeks.
“Keith is a college professor and doesn’t have the resources to fight $200,000 at the last minute,” she said. “I’m saddened that politics now comes down to 30-second TV ads and huge sums of money. Hard work alone is not what it takes anymore.”
Gruters believes Fitzgerald was also receiving state party funding and attributes Pilon’s victory to the candidate’s hard work, along with anti-Democrat sentiments.
“When Ray got into the race, I knew he’d win, because of the national mood,” he said.
According to the Florida Division of Elections website, Pilon received more than $67,000 from the Florida Republican Party between Oct. 8 and Oct. 27. In total, Pilon collected $187,782 in campaign contributions, compared to Fitzgerald’s total of $336,215.
Pilon himself credits the team he assembled, as well as the political atmosphere.
“It’s now up to us to take what the folks gave us and do what they want us to do,” Pilon said. “I don’t want to let these people down.”
In his concession speech, Fitzgerald ackowledged the tough night for all Democrats.
“It’s not about me,” he said. “But democracy is not about one election. This is not the end of anything.”
Asked how much of the election results can be assigned to the national mood, Gruters said 50%.
Ferrandino thought it was closer to 70%.
In the past two election cycles, the Democratic Party had made some gains in Sarasota County. In 2006, Buchanan actually lost in Sarasota County, but had enough votes in Manatee County to propel him to victory. And in 2008, presidential candidate John McCain only beat President Barrack Obama by 211 votes.
Gruters believes Republicans took back the county on Tuesday night.
“It really set back any gains the Democrats felt they picked up in the past few years,” Gruters said.
Ferrandino acknowledges the setback but thinks the Democratic party is still stronger than it has ever been in Sarasota County.
To view of a PDF document displaying Sarasota County election totals, click here.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected].