Gore vote says GOP has edge, not a lock, in Pinellas County
By CURTIS KRUEGER
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000
If you're looking for a place with Republican credentials, it's hard to top Pinellas County, where 15 of 17 countywide officeholders belong to the GOP, and Democrats don't even bother to field candidates in many races.
Pinellas was the first county in Florida to turn Republican in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the first in the entire South.
But something funny's going on in Pinellas.
Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore sneaked into this GOP stronghold and grabbed 200,616 votes, compared with 184,823 for Republican George W. Bush and 10,021 for Ralph Nader, according to final but unofficial totals after Wednesday's recount.
That means about 50.4 percent of Pinellas voters cast ballots for Gore, 46.4 percent voted for Bush and about 2.5 percent went with Nader.
And it's not the first time.
During four of the five election years of the 1990s, the Democrat at the top of the ticket -- either a presidential or gubernatorial candidate -- won the most votes in Pinellas County.
Bob Shirer, vice chairman of the Pinellas Democrats, had a simple explanation for the results this year: "The Democrats worked our tails off, that's why. We had an active, active operation going here, all over the country."
Myrtle Smith-Carroll, a Democratic national committeewoman from St. Petersburg, said local Democrats often have found it easier to unify around a national cause, such as a presidential campaign.
On myriad local races, however, "It's the old Will Rogers story." She was referring to the late comedian, who once said that he was not a member of an organized political party -- because he was a Democrat.
Republicans, of course, see things differently.
Pinellas GOP Chairman Paul Bedinghaus said a well-organized local party will have its strongest effect on local races, and he thinks that helps explain why the GOP has done so well in county and legislative offices.
National campaigns depend on television commercials and national political coverage, factors outside a local party's control.
"Did the other side just have a tremendous organization that outworked us? No. Absolutely not."
Also, he said, Pinellas County's large senior citizen population no doubt tuned in closely to certain aspects of the debate, which could have swayed voters.
"Plain and simple, the Social Security issue was played very, very hard here. This was ground zero in the disinformation campaign about Social Security and Medicare and what a George W. Bush administration might do," Bedinghaus said.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, also cited the St. Petersburg Times as a factor, saying the editorial page's support of Gore probably had an impact on some voters. In contrast, he pointed to Hillsborough County, where Tampa Tribune editorials supported Bush. Hillsborough, which has a smaller percentage of Republicans than Pinellas, leaned toward Bush in the voting.
Republicans don't have as big a majority in registered voters as many assume. GOP voters make up roughly 42.1 percent of the electorate, compared with about 37.2 percent for Democrats and about 20.6 percent for independents and members of smaller political parties.
But Latvala said he believes 25,000 to 30,000 people are really Democrats but are registered as Republicans so they can vote in local primary elections, which tend to have more GOP candidates.
"I think the voters in Pinellas have been very, very issue-oriented. They're less party-line," said political consultant Wayne Garcia.
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