Previewing the Top 20 Florida House races to watch in 2014: The Tampa Bay factor

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Tampa Bay will almost certainly play a significant role in the upcoming Florida House races, where a trio of first-time GOP candidates and several from high-profile political families, are poised to make substantial gains in Pinellas County.

A possible predictor of November’s races are the 2012 elections. At least three races in the Tampa Bay region were decided by tiny margins, suggesting — with the right candidates — they could be ripe for turnover in 2014.

Party changes are not uncommon, nor unexpected, in this group of swing districts.

Incumbent first-term Republican Ross Spano faces Brandon Democrat Donna Lee Fore in House District 59, to represent the region covering parts of central Hillsborough County, as well as Brandon, Riverview, Progress Village and Valrico. Fore, who served as president of the Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce, originally ran for the District 4 seat of the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners held by term-limited Al Higginbotham. One of the reasons for Fore’s switch could be that in 2012, Spano won HD 59 by only 2 percent.

One of the most contentious battles in November, and arguably one the closest, could take place in the suburbs of Tampa. It is the rematch between incumbent Democrat Mark Danish and former Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison in House District 63. The region covers north Hillsborough County. After serving a single term in the House, Harrison lost to Danish in 2012 by only a 1 percent margin. This time, Harrison enjoys both polling and fundraising momentum in his bid to reclaim the seat.

With 66 percent of the vote in the Republican primary, Republican political newcomer Chris Sprowls won the chance to face Democratic incumbent Rep. Carl Zimmermann in House District 65. With the GOP firmly behind Sprowls, a Republican voter registration advantage and the fact that Zimmermann won by only 6 percent in 2012, the seat for Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Palm Harbor and East Lake could be ready to change hands.

In House District 66, incumbent Republican Rep. Larry Ahern faces Democrat Lorena Grizzle, another first-time political candidate, but not a stranger to political life. Grizzle is a Largo special education elementary school teacher and daughter of the late Republican Florida legislator Mary Grizzle. Ahern won the seat covering the cities of Clearwater, Largo, Bellaire and Seminole in 2012 by a 6 percent margin.

Another Pinellas County Republican also won his first-ever primary challenge. Chris Latvala, son of longtime state Sen. Jack Latvala, will vie for the House District 67 seat vacated by term-limited Rep. Ed Hooper, who won a primary bid for Pinellas County Commission in last month’s election. In 2012, Hooper, a popular Clearwater City Commissioner and former firefighter, won re-election by just 6 percent. With name recognition and solid fundraising behind him, Latvala now faces Democrat Steve Sarnoff, who defeated Shawna Vercher, a better-funded, well-known but troubled candidate in the primary.

Name recognition is also a key factor in House District 68, where Bill Young II became the third GOP newbie to succeed in his first political challenge. He will now encounter incumbent Democratic Rep. Dwight Dudley in November. Young is the son of the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Republican who represented Pinellas County in Congress for 40 years until he died in October. This race is notable for several reasons: Young’s pedigree, his margin of victory in the primary (80 percent!) and that Dudley won in 2012 by only 7 percent.

To represent Pinellas County’s south county beaches and inland cities of Gulfport and Pasadena, incumbent Republican Rep. Kathleen Peters will face Democratic attorney Scott Orsini in House District 69. Peters, a former South Pasadena mayor, could see a serious challenge for the seat after her failed attempt to win the special GOP primary for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, although she initially had the backing of top Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala. Peters also won the HD 69 seat in 2012 by a margin of 5 percent, notable because a Republican won in a district that elected President Barack Obama by 52 percent.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.