Democratic voters believe George Sheldon, a former Department of Children and Families secretary, is their best hope to take on Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi in November.
Sheldon, a former state legislator who most recently held a post in the Obama administration, defeated state House Minority Leader Perry Thurston on Tuesday after a mostly cordial primary campaign.
Sheldon, who received a concession call from Thurston just after 8:30 p.m., was leading with more than 61 percent of the unofficial tally at 9 p.m., according to the state Division of Elections.
"I believe the attorney general is the people's lawyer, not the governor's lawyer, and not the Legislature's lawyer," Sheldon told supporters during a victory party at the Wine Loft Wine Bar in Tallahassee. "Help me give Pam Bondi the job she really wants, as an anchor on FOX News."
Bondi wasted little time in both congratulating Sheldon and challenging him to a debate.
"The voters will have a clear choice between candidates in this election, and they deserve to hear directly from us on the distinct difference in visions and leadership that each candidate will offer to the Attorney General’s Office," Bondi said in a prepared statement.
Sheldon, whose campaign contends Bondi has politicized the office, said he would accept the challenge, adding he would prefer a series of up to five debates.
Sheldon has run for statewide office before. He was defeated in a run for education commissioner in 2000 by then-Republican Charlie Crist, who on Tuesday became the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Sheldon offered his congratulations to Crist.
Sheldon, Thurston and Crist are expected to appear together Thursday at party unity rallies in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.
The first order of business for Sheldon must be to quickly build a campaign account that can give him the statewide media attention needed to compete with Bondi.
Approaching the primary, Bondi had $1.68 million of the $1.84 million she had raised. A political committee she is associated with, Justice for All, has another $1.65 million waiting to be spent.
Bondi has also been able to offset expenses through nearly $1 million in in-kind donations --- mostly from the Republican Party of Florida --- for consulting, campaign staffing, research, mailers and polling.
Sheldon, meanwhile, had raised $495,948, of which $474,959 was spent heading into the primary. Libertarian Bill Wohlsifer will also appear on the November ballot.
Sheldon acknowledged a tough campaign is ahead but said he believes Democrats were holding back on endorsements and contributions during the primary.
"We're not going to compete with her dollar for dollar," Sheldon told reporters Tuesday night. "But I think if we can be competitive with half the money, then I think we can make a difference."
But while Sheldon expects to see his fund grow, the same will go for Bondi who has attracted national attention as a frequent guest on FOX News and helped lead a Republican legal battle against the federal Affordable Care Act.
Bondi has also championed legislation against pill mills, synthetic drugs and human trafficking.
However, Democrats believe she has made enough questionable decisions that could be exploited this fall, including her ongoing opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage and contesting a medical marijuana amendment that will go before voters this fall.