HD 74 preview: Can anyone really replace Doug Holder?

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The race to replace term-limited Republican Rep. Doug Holder in a Sarasota County district is a showdown between a former Broward County GOP official and a Venice doctor. Attorney Richard DeNapoli and orthopedic surgeon Julio Gonzalez have been raising money and courting voters since last fall.

“There’s an open seat and I realized I had some incredible tools and insights to offer to the Legislature,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez and former Broward County Republican Party Chairman Richard DeNapoli are battling for the seat vacated by term-limited Rep. Doug Holder.

“Battling” is probably the most accurate word for the HD 74 race, given the increasingly negative tone in the approach to the Aug. 26 GOP primary, making it one of the rockiest House races in the state.

A PAC linked to the Florida Medical Association, which supports Gonzalez, recently launched television ads blasting DeNapoli for the way he talked up his attempt to become a U.S. Marine. The 30-second spot focused on a time the candidate served – for a short period – in the Marine Corps. An injury sidelined his military career.

The ad, produced by Better Florida Fund Corp contends DeNapoli was “trying to trick voters that he was a U.S. Marine.” And just for good measure, the word “Nasty” was superimposed (in red) over DeNapoli’s picture.

For his part, Gonzalez, a Venice orthopedic surgeon, continued to fight off accusations cropping up over book he authored in 2009 titled Health Care Reform: The Truth. In the 220-page volume, Gonzalez outlined his arguments against health care reform, suggesting changes to the American system for “appropriate modes of resource allocation,” something his opponents claimed is a thinly veiled term for “death panels.”

Soon afterwards, a TV spot produced by a group called Seniors for Affordable Care began popping up on south Sarasota airwaves — along with a website called DangerouslyLiberal.com – that ripped into Gonzalez, calling him “liberal Doctor Death Panel” with ideas “worse than those in Obamacare.” Seniors for Affordable Care is linked to “Florida Justice,” a group representing the state’s trial lawyers, through a circuitous flow of money by way of a series of committees, one led by former state Rep. Shawn Harrison and another by DeNapoli consultant Anthony Pedicini.

House District 74 covers much of south Sarasota County including the cities of Osprey, Nokomis, Venice and parts of North Port and Englewood. The Republican Party enjoys a 44 percent to 30 percent voter registration advantage over the Democratic Party.

However, voters do not seem to follow a party line. Both Gov. Rick Scott and President Barack Obama outperformed their respective party’s registration number. Scott collected 52 percent of the vote in 2010 and Obama 43 percent in 2012.

Both Republican candidates report 500 contributors with Gonzalez raising $197,000 and DeNapoli $93,000 plus a $150,000 loan he made to his campaign.

DeNapoli is an attorney and financial planner. He said he entered the race because he wanted to keep Florida “on the right track.” He said he agrees with Gov. Rick Scott’s goal of keeping the cost of doing business low to help create jobs.

“If we can make it easy for small business to locate in Florida, if we can decrease regulation, we should do whatever we can do to help promote small businesses,” said DeNapoli.

DeNapoli has hired Strategic Image Management to advise his campaign and Michael Millner as a campaign treasurer. He has collected endorsements from Reps. Ray Pilon, Dane Eagle, Heather Fitzenhagen, Bill Hager, George Moraitis, Carlos Trujillo and former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux.

On the campaign trail, Gonzalez has had to explain a $500 contribution he made in 2008 to the Democratic National Committee. He says it was the price of admission to a meeting with chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz where he spoke against ideas like the Affordable Care Act.

Gonzalez told at least two Republican audiences that the donation was to facilitate a meeting with Wasserman Schultz to discuss his objections to Obamacare. However, Obama did not secure the Democratic nomination until June of 2008, and Gonzalez’s donation predated the Affordable Care Act by more than two years.

“I was opposed to it because of what it would do to our (state) budget,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s opposition to Medicaid expansion as called for in the Affordable Care Act puts him at odds with many in the medical community, but it has not hurt his fundraising with the group. About half of his contributions come from health interests.

“I was very intrigued by the Negron plan and I thought that was an interesting way to solve some of the challenges that are facing Medicaid patients,” said Gonzalez about Sen. Joe Negron’s proposal to use federal money to provide health insurance to people with low incomes.

“I thought it might be a solution and if it comes up in the Legislature and I happened to have the opportunity to study it, I think that it might be something that is workable,” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez has pulled in a host of high profile endorsements, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, Congressman Vern Buchanan, state Sen. Kelli Stargel and former Sen. Lisa Carlton. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Healthcare Association, Southwest Florida Police Benevolent Association, and the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange has also formally endorsed Gonzalez. He has hired Eric Robinson as campaign treasurer and Mac Stevenson as a consultant.

Once again, Democrats failed to field a candidate. The party sat out the 2012 race as well, and the winner of this year’s GOP primary will face two write-in candidates in November.