Democrat Amanda Murphy defeats Republican Bill Gunter in harbinger race for House District 36

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Democrat Amanda Murphy defeated a well-financed Bill Gunter in what was an increasingly bitter Pasco County House District 36 special election to complete the remaining year of former Rep. Mike Fasano’s seat.

With 100% of the precincts reporting, Democrat Murphy won with 51 percent of the over 18,800 ballots cast. At that point, Gunter called Murphy to concede.

What makes Murphy’s win impressive is Gunter had support of the state GOP, including a full-throated voter drive by state heavyweights Attorney General Pam Bondi, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Rep. Richard Corcoran.

Murphy received her biggest advance when Republican Fasano, an icon in Pasco politics who served 18 years in the Florida Legislature, announced he voted for the Democrat.

Gunter consistently outpaced Murphy in fundraising. According to the current state Division of Elections records, the financial planner collected at $99,835 in contributions and $32,786 “in kind” support, most of which came from the Democratic Party and labor organizations. Her campaign cost $78,504.

In contrast, Gunter had a solid fundraising session, with a total of $165,440, including $211,423 of “in-kind” contributions, with state party and House leadership funds. He also reported spending $144,109 on his unsuccessful campaign, not including expenditures by committees from outside Pasco County.

In addition to strong labor support, Murphy received endorsements from a number of Republicans, including former Pasco County commissioner Ann Hildebrand. Former GOP county commissioner Sandra Werner and assistant school district superintendent Ray Gadd endorsed Murphy, as did prominent investor Republican Frank Morsani.

Towards the end, the race against Murphy became negative, especially when two groups – Florida Jobs First and Citizens for Fairness — paid for pro-Gunter negative attack ads that may have helped Murphy more than hurt.

One round of television spots attacking Murphy came from Florida Jobs First, a PAC started by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, which spent $75,000 in the last weeks of the campaign.

Citizens for Fairness also funded a large print mailer falsely portraying Murphy as a “Wall Street Broker” who owns two homes, one in Mexico. Fasano responded by paying for 8,000 robocalls disputing the flyer’s negative claims made on the.

Murphy’s win demonstrates that the strategy may have backfired, by turning off voters from Gunter and lowering turnout.

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Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range included covering news, local government and nightclub reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for an online metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013 and lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.