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Detert's Exit Leads To GOP Primary Battle In Sarasota, Charlotte Counties

Senate District 23 represents Sarasota County and parts of Charlotte County.

When Sen. Nancy Detert decided this year to run for the Sarasota County Commission instead of seeking another term in Tallahassee, it opened up a seat that Republicans have long controlled.

And as the Aug. 30 primary approaches, five Republicans -- including four current or former office-holders -- are competing to replace Detert.

Former Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, House members Greg Steube and Ray Pilon, former House member Doug Holder, and businessman Rick Levine are competing in the GOP primary in Senate District 23, which includes all of Sarasota County and the western portion of Charlotte County. All are from Sarasota.

Credit Nora Patterson for Senate
Nora Patterson

Detert, known for her candor and her advocacy for causes like children in foster care, has endorsed Patterson, who served 16 years on the County Commission and is a former Sarasota mayor.

"I've known Nora for years, and I like the fact that she knows our community so well," Detert said.

Among her priorities, Patterson, 72, is emphasizing economic development, education and transportation improvements. She said she supports restoring funding for Enterprise Florida, the public-private economic development agency that saw lawmakers reject a $250 million economic incentives package this year.

"They need to be properly funded and agile enough to be able to take care of opportunities," Patterson said in an interview with FloridaWins.org, a nonpartisan election group.

Running in a Republican primary, Patterson has drawn some criticism from conservatives because she is a former board member of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Florida. She said she left the organization before it began performing abortions.

Patterson, who has lived in Sarasota since 1970, has a long list of endorsements from local officials and prominent community members, including former Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton.

Through Aug. 5, Patterson had raised $156,000 and loaned $100,000 to her campaign. She had used some of that to broadcast a 30-second ad featuring Detert's endorsement.

Credit Florida House of Representives
Greg Stuebe

The two leading fund-raisers in the race are Steube, 38, a lawyer and Iraq war veteran who has served in the House since 2010, and Holder, 49, a real estate broker who served eight years in the House before term limits forced him out in 2014. Steube had raised $295,000 through Aug. 5, while Holder had collected $303,000.

Both candidates are appealing to the conservative side of the electorate.

Steube, who has been a staunch supporter of gun rights and sponsored legislation to allow people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry firearms on college and university campuses, has the backing of the National Rifle Association.

Marion Hammer, an NRA lobbyist and former national president of the organization, praised Steube for "advancing the cause of freedom, Second Amendment rights and the protection of constitutional rights."

The Florida Right to Life group has also endorsed Steube, who is the son of Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube.

Credit Florida House of Representives
Doug Holder

  Holder has the backing of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which is putting its financial muscle behind his campaign. Marian Johnson, a vice president and political strategist for the Chamber, called Holder a "consistent champion" for free enterprise when the endorsement was announced in June.

Holder might have an edge in that his former House district covered the southern portion of Sarasota County, although Steube has won key endorsements in the area including from Venice Mayor John Holic, state Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, and Charlotte Sheriff Bill Prummell.

The two candidates have clashed over a series of votes on immigration bills in the House. Most of the attacks in mailers and television ads are being carried out by political committees not directly linked to the candidates but clearly favoring one over the other.

Among the bills are a 2013 measure that would have let people who came to the U.S. as children of undocumented immigrants obtain driver's licenses. Holder voted for the bill, while Steube initially supported it but later changed his vote to a no. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill.

Another bill that became law in 2014 let the children of undocumented immigrants qualify for in-state college and university tuition. Holder voted for the bill, while Steube opposed it.

"(Holder) is just using an outside (political committee) to move money around to attack me on an issue he voted for," Steube said. "He voted for every one of them."

Steube said the negative campaigning may backfire, but he expects it to intensify as the primary race nears its conclusion. "I'm sure in the last two weeks, it's going to get worse," he said.

Credit Florida House of Representives
Ray Pilon

Pilon, 71, a former county commissioner and law-enforcement officer who has served in the House since 2010, is staying out of the fray, while emphasizing some of the issues he promoted in the Legislature, including his successful effort to allow terminally ill Floridians access to experimental drugs.

"Those are the things I'm emphasizing because I believe they benefit people," Pilon said.

Having raised $130,000 through Aug. 5, Pilon said he is targeting his resources based on his longtime work in local GOP politics. He said he knows the race will be close.

"I think there is no one person who has an edge," Pilon said.

Pilon, like Patterson, may have stronger appeal among the more-moderate Republicans in the district. Both supported the Senate plan to expand Medicaid-funded coverage in Florida under the Affordable Care Act.

Levine, a Sarasota businessman, has been less of a presence in the primary, having raised only $3,640 and loaning his campaign $1,900 through mid-July.

Detert said the race has been "very negative" between Steube and Holder "on who can be the most conservative, although some of the votes were not conservative at all."

She said Patterson and Pilon are "going for kind of the rest of the Republicans."

"It's anybody's guess as to how that's all going to shake out," she said.

In the Democratic primary, Frank Alcock, a political science professor at New College of Florida, is facing Frank Cirillo, a recent graduate of the University of South Florida. Alcock had raised $43,000 for his campaign as of Aug. 5, while Cirillo had brought in $8,600 at the end of July.

The district favors Republicans, with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney winning 54 percent of the vote in 2012.

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