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How Brown-Waite ousted Thurman

The Bush factor. Newly drawn boundaries. Several factors allowed the challenger to oust Karen Thurman.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Ginny Brown-Waite, at right, greets supports in Spring Hill after winning the 5th Congressional District race against Karen Thurman Tuesday night.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 7, 2002

Ginny Brown-Waite first started to believe she might win Florida's 5th Congressional District seat about 3 miles from her Election Night party.

She had her worries as she watched results with family members at her Brooksville home. The numbers showed her winning, then losing, then in a dead heat. Her internal polling simply confirmed that the race would be a nail-biter.

Urged to make an appearance by campaign staffers, Brown-Waite headed to the party just before 10 p.m. With just a few Republican precincts remaining, her lead seemed small but solid enough to claim victory.

On the way to Spring Hill, she said, her stomach suddenly seared with pain. It wasn't butterflies, she related, but more like the presence of every cocoon of every butterfly that had ever made an appearance in her 59 years. Her husband, Harvey, asked if she was going to be sick.

No, she responded. "I just think we might win."

Among the decided seats, Brown-Waite was one of four nonincumbent challengers across the country to knock out a sitting House member. Brown-Waite received 121,958 votes to incumbent Karen Thurman's 117,717. Jack Gargan won 8,635 votes, and Brian Moore earned 6,221.

Thurman said Wednesday she would not challenge the results. She did not, however, rule out a bid to return to Congress in two years.

Analysts and the candidates pointed to a handful of factors that drove Brown-Waite's triumph:

-- Redistricting. The Republican-dominated Legislature removed heavily Democratic Alachua County. In its place, they added parts of GOP strongholds Sumter, Polk and Lake counties, much of which Brown-Waite had represented as a state senator.

-- Grass-roots organization. Brown-Waite and party leaders mobilized early, while Thurman had no primary and had spent a lot of time in Washington.

-- A strong resume. Unlike Thurman's past opponents, who included a race car driver and some unknown lawyers, Brown-Waite spent 10 years in the state Senate, including two as second-in-command.

-- The Bushes. President Bush campaigned for Brown-Waite at a rally days before the election, and appeared in ads for her. Gov. Jeb Bush 's presence on the ballot also drew voters.

"In the end, I think having Jeb Bush at the top of the ticket really helped Ginny Brown-Waite across the finish line," said Jonathan Allen, a political writer for Congressional Quarterly, which is owned by the Times Publishing Co.

University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus noted that the result mirrored the district's voter breakdown.

"It was very much a party-line vote," MacManus said. "The president's endorsement probably put Ginny Brown-Waite over the top. It was probably less about policy than about putting someone on the president's team."

The redistricting made the race interesting from the get-go, Allen said. Republicans saw the seat with its narrow GOP edge as ripe for plucking, while the Democrats knew they'd have to play defense to have any chance of reasserting control of the House.

"Part of Thurman's challenge was introducing herself to the new voters in the district," observed Nathan Gonzales, a political analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Rothenberg Political Report. "That meant voters were up for grabs, even though she was a sitting member of Congress."

Donald Burgess, Sumter County's GOP state committeeman, saw this truth on the ground. Many residents of the growing Villages retirement subdivision have lived in Florida for less than five years, he said, and did not know either candidate. Both candidates campaigned in the Villages, but the area leaned Republican, he said. Hard work by Brown-Waite and the GOP paid off, he said, and she won the county by 3,100 votes.

Thurman admitted that the new boundaries hurt, especially when much of voters' exposure to her came through nasty, often misleading, campaign ads.

"For those that don't know you and haven't had the experience of working with us, those kinds of things, after hearing it over and over again, it begins to sound believable, even though it isn't," Thurman said. "I'm very, very proud that those who knew us voted for us."

Thurman won in Brown-Waite's home base of Hernando County and in her own back yard, Citrus County. She also led in Levy and Marion counties.

Brown-Waite blamed her home-county loss on two issues -- her husband's stealing of Thurman campaign signs, and late accusations that she had used her office to get business for her husband's business. She noted Wednesday that her husband had sold the business a year before her accusers claimed to have been pressured.

She said she had begun reaching out to those who did not support her. Redistricting might not have done the trick alone, University of Central Florida political scientist Aubrey Jewett said.

"You've got to give a lot of credit to the Republicans for getting the right candidate on the ballot," Jewett said, noting Brown-Waite's solid credentials as a moderate Republican in the Senate leadership.

Brown-Waite handily defeated more conservative businessman Don Gessner in the Republican primary and came away with name recognition and a positive bounce heading into the general. Thurman had no primary and was spending a lot of time in Washington. Some questioned whether Thurman campaigned hard enough.

"I don't know that there's anything I could have done differently," Thurman responded, adding that she raised more money than ever before. "I had no control over the fact that I couldn't be in the district because I was in session."

Brown-Waite took advantage. "Sleep is optional" was her campaign mantra as she criss-crossed the district. She did not win newspaper endorsements, but she found a strong volunteer base.

"We knew it was going to be won on the ground, not on the airwaves," Brown-Waite said.

Dan Semenza, Lake County Republican chairman, said his organization knew the race would be tough so it diverted workers from less competitive elections into District 5. They ran an absentee campaign, phone banks and more, and gave Brown-Waite her biggest margin of victory -- 5,734 votes.

The closeness of the result likely will keep Democrats interested in the seat two years from now, Gonzales said. Brown-Waite's strength in the outer edges could help her in the future, he said, but her loss at home might be a weakness.

For now, the Republicans hold an 18-7 lead on Florida's House delegation, with Brown-Waite helping to cement the party's hold on Congress.

"We couldn't have asked for more," said Al Cardenas, Republican Party of Florida chairman.

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